RICHMOND -- A federal investigation of the West Contra Costa school district revealed a pervasive environment of sexual harassment and assaults by students that schools officials failed to adequately address, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights said Wednesday in announcing an agreement with the district to remedy the problem.

"I am dismayed by the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault occurring at elementary and secondary schools in West Contra Costa," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, in a prepared statement. "Although the district frequently reported known incidents of sexual assaults to law enforcement for prosecution, the district did not fully comply with its legal obligations under Title IX to take immediate actions to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects, and to put proper procedures and protocols in place."

The courtyard beyond the fence on the campus of Richmond High School, which was the scene of a rape. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff File)
The courtyard beyond the fence on the campus of Richmond High School, which was the scene of a rape. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff File)

The findings led to an agreement between the Department of Education and the district with lengthy requirements designed to ensure compliance with Title IX, a 1972 law guaranteeing equal gender treatment, and reduce future instances of harassment or sexual violence.

The investigation found that instances of "sexual assaults, unwelcome touching, demands for sexual favors, and the use of sexually derogatory language created a hostile environment at district schools," according to the Department of Education news release. The Office for Civil Rights also found that students had been subjected to sexual harassment by employees.

A call to the Department of Education office in Washington was not immediately returned Wednesday.


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As part of the agreement, the district is required to hire consultants to ensure Title IX compliance and sexual harassment-prevention training; create a task force of parents, students and community members to identify strategies to reduce sexual violence; and improve security and follow-ups to reports of misbehavior.

"(The Office for Civil Rights) stands ready to work with the district to help it realize its commitments to preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence in its schools through satisfaction of this agreement," the statement read.

A Nov. 6 letter to Superintendent Bruce Harter says the investigation was initiated on March 31, 2010. It's unclear whether the investigation was prompted by the infamous Richmond High School gang rape, which occurred in October 2009. In that incident, a 15-year-old female student was raped by a group of boys and men in a courtyard on the school campus while a homecoming dance was being held in the gymnasium. In January 2011, the victim received a $4 million settlement from the school district.

Among the other incidents noted in the investigation was a rape in October 2008 of a Pinole Valley High School student in a classroom by two male students. Although the student was transferred to a new school at her request, "the district did not take steps to ensure that the victim did not experience further harassment, and the student was later contacted and sexually propositioned by her assailants, including while at school," according to the letter sent to Harter.

A 2009 incident reported at Portola Middle School in El Cerrito centered on the sexual assault of a 12-year-old student by a 14-year-old fellow student on school grounds while school was in session. The accused student had previously been disciplined twice for nonconsensual touching of a female student, according to the letter.

District spokesman Marin Trujillo said late Wednesday that the district would issue a statement addressing the investigation and agreement on Thursday.

The 30,000-student district comprises 37 elementary schools, six middle schools and six high schools, along with several alternative, continuation and charter schools.

The Office for Civil Rights conducted on-site investigations at three high schools (Richmond, Kennedy, Pinole Valley), three middle schools (Portola, Helms, Pinole), one elementary school (Bayview) and one continuation school (Harbour Way Academy), and interviewed students, parents, administrators, teachers, school resource officers, counselors, psychologists and other district and school staff.

In the letter to Harter, signed by San Francisco-based Office for Civil Rights Director Arthur Zeidman, the agency declared that its investigation revealed "that the district did not respond promptly and effectively to the sexual harassment of students, including sexual assaults and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature, that resulted in a sexually hostile environment that denies or limits students' ability to participate in or benefit from the district's education program and activities."

Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.