Salem family fights to change sexual harassment policies in K-12 - KPTV - FOX 12

Salem family fights to change sexual harassment policies in K-12 schools

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A Salem family is working to change state law after their son's terrible experience with a high school basketball program. It's all to protect a student's right to information following complaints of sexual violence. 

The Millers say a group of boys on the Sprague High School basketball team tried to sexually assault their teenage son on an out-of-state tournament. He called home to tell them about what happened. 

"He says, 'Dad, I wanted to tell you I was attacked," said father Chad Miller. "I will never forget the emotion I felt, you feel helpless."

The incident was eventually reported to school administrators who said they'd investigate. All the while, the Millers say their son was bullied by those same players to the point where he felt unsafe and switched schools.

The Salem-Keizer School District declined to comment on this story because of litigation stemming from this incident. The Millers are not involved in that litigation, according to their attorney. 

"One of the hardest parts of this whole thing was that he transferred to another school and couldn't play basketball the entire season. So, for the entire season he sat and watched these kids while the investigation went on through the school. He watched these kids play in their games, celebrate wins, receive awards. It was hurtful," said mother Dionne Miller. 

Months later, the Millers got an email from the Salem-Kezier School District stating their investigation was complete and they confirmed their son's "credible account of the incident."

"To get validation from the school using the words, my son's credible story, was the first glimmer of hope something might happen," said Chad Miller. 

The Millers say they expected to see those players held accountable, but never did.  When they tried to get answers about what the district had done, or planned to do to ensure their son's safety, they heard nothing for months.

"To not have them not respond, or say, 'I'm sorry I can't say anything,' we're just going, 'Why?'" said Miller. 

It turns out, that's because Oregon schools aren't required to say a thing in circumstances like this.

"From what we've seen, the Millers' case is actually unique in that the district provided them with notice of the outcome," said Portland Attorney Jackie Swanson. "Right now, they are not required to do that under Oregon law."

Swanson is a Portland attorney known for changing state laws to help survivors of sex abuse. Next on her list is developing a new state policy to address this very issue.   

The Millers' son is the inspiration behind it. 

"The Millers decided to come forward because they want to make this better for other people," said Swanson. "They want to make sure this doesn't happen to others and that takes its own kind of strength."

Swanson is now working with the Millers and state Rep. Andrea Salinas to introduce new legislation this special session that would give families access to basic information about a student's safety in the aftermath of sexual violence.  

"In the past six months, I've heard from at least 10 different families all here in northwest Oregon with experiences similar to this. I think it is something that is shocking to a lot of people. I think people think if that's my child, the school would work with me. But, that's not the case," Swanson added. 

"Right now, school policies seem very ambiguous and unclear," said Salinas. "I think with the prevalence of these cases increasing, schools will need to turn to some type of written document that says, this is what you do in this situation."

The proposed policy states K-12 schools should be required to notify student victims and their parents about the result of a sexual harassment investigation. Students accused of the harassment and their parents should also get that same notification too, according to the proposal. 

"I feel like these are some easy technical changes we can make right now," said Salinas. " I think this is a surefire way to help both the victims, but also school boards from avoiding any kind of lawsuits, or legal remedies from victim's families." 

If the complaint is substantiated, the proposal states student victims and their families should also be entitled to know what the school has done to prevent the harassment from happening again, including any information about sanctions imposed on students who engaged in the harassment. 

"Part of remedying a hostile environment is being able to know moving forward if something is going to be addressed," said Swanson.  "You should not be left wondering, is this going to happen again, or is the person who did this going to have any consequences for their actions?  Student victims, their families, they deserve to know something has been done."  

"There are so many unspoken stories of this kind of thing happening," said Chad Miller. "It's too hard to point the finger at one person, it's the entire system. It's the society who says it's just boys being boys. I don't think any of those people have actually felt like I did the night I got the phone call from my son and heard his voice." 

They can't change what happened to their son.  But moving forward, the Millers hope a change in state law may help other families. 

"My hope is that there's awareness, that there are policy changes and ultimately there's consequences for kids that behave like this," said Dionne Miller. "If it's not addressed now, what happens when kids go on to college. There needs to be accountability."

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