A father of a student at Riverview Elementary School says unclear procedures about how Durango School District 9-R handles sexual misconduct reports prompted him to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, asking for the federal agency to investigate the school district’s compliance with Title IX and its own procedures and policies about sexual harassment.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, including sexual misconduct. By law, schools are required to have a staff member trained as a Title IX compliance officer.
District 9-R’s Title IX officer is Laura Galido, whose full-time job is director of Human Resources.
The father who filed the complaint with the OCR says the school district, specifically Superintendent Dan Snowberger, failed to properly investigate an incident he reported about his son being sexually assaulted and did not allow him immediate access to the district’s Title IX compliance officer. He also said the district failed to enforce its sexual harassment policy.
In multiple interviews with The Durango Herald, Snowberger disagreed that the school district failed to properly investigate the alleged incident and said the district followed its policies and procedures. He said he would resign if the Office of Civil Rights’ investigation found any wrongdoing on the school district’s part.
HHHThe alleged victim’s father said he tried for months to get District 9-R to respond to his concerns about how the investigation was handled. Out of frustration, he shared several documents, emails and audio recordings with the Herald.
The Herald does not print the names of sexual assault victims without their consent. The name of the father is being withheld to prevent the identification of the alleged victim.
According to the complaint the father filed with District 9-R and OCR, the alleged victim’s father said when he picked up his son from Riverview Elementary School, at 2900 Mesa Ave., in Durango on May 31, his child was visibly upset.
The child told his father that during a school assembly, a classmate grabbed, punched and pinched his buttocks. The boy said he asked his classmate to stop, but he continued the behavior, including sticking his finger up his anus “really far.”
The same day as the incident, the father reported it via email to Riverview Elementary Principal Doug Geygan.
Snowberger said the district began its own investigation the next day. Geygan interviewed seven children who were near the two students, as well as several teachers and staff members. Nobody reported seeing the digital penetration, according to the investigation report.
The students and teachers did say, however, the students in the class acted up during the assembly and poked and slapped each other throughout the 90-minute gathering. Snowberger said those behaviors were properly dealt with, but he did not say how citing confidentiality.
Snowberger has called the actions that were witnessed “horse play” and “playful activity.”
On July 18, Snowberger’s report about the investigation concluded “the alleged incident is unsubstantiated” based on interviews with teachers and students, as well as the fact that the school district was unable to interview the alleged victim because the parents would not allow it, according to a copy of the report.
He added: “While false allegations are a significant concern, the district does not intend to act as we remain concerned that the victim should receive support to process this incident from a licensed professional.”
HHHOne of the key pieces of the father’s complaint to the OCR is the role of the school district’s Title IX compliance officer, Galido.
Snowberger said the district’s policy is that a school district administrator, which can include a principal, investigates sexual harassment or assault complaints. Then, if the person who filed the original complaint feels the process was mishandled or mistreated, he or she has the option to file a complaint with the Title IX officer.
“Not every report of sexual assault, harassment or discrimination goes to the compliance officer,” Snowberger told the Herald. “She will investigate when a complaint is filed that the district has somehow mishandled a situation.”
In the District 9-R policy, there is no step-by-step process on how sexual harassment or sexual assault claims are investigated.
According to 9-R policy on sexual harassment, “The district shall investigate all indications, informal reports and formal grievances of sexual harassment by students, staff or third-parties and appropriate corrective action shall be taken.”
The student handbook states says reports of sexual misconduct are to be reported to the Title IX compliance officer immediately. The handbook and policy do not state that the district will do its own investigation and then involve the Title IX officer only if the findings were not satisfactory to the person who filed the report.
In the same policy section, “JBB” states: “Students are encouraged to report all incidences of sexual harassment to either a teacher, counselor or principal in their school building and file a complaint, through the district’s complaint and compliance process. All reports and indications from students, district employees and third parties shall be forwarded to the compliance officer.”
In this case, the “compliance officer” is Galido.
The Herald asked Snowberger and Durango School District 9-R spokeswoman Julie Popp to further clarify the policy but they declined.
Snowberger said Galido was made aware of the alleged incident on the day it was reported, May 31, but the investigation was headed by the school’s principal, Geygan, and then subsequently by Snowberger. This is common practice, he said.
According to documents of the investigation and emails between the father, district employees and school board, Galido became involved in the case July 23, when the victim’s father filed a complaint that the school district’s investigation was mishandled.
The boy’s father contends that the Title IX officer should have been involved from the start.
The Herald asked Snowberger what qualifications and training he and Geygan have to investigate sexual assault claims, including Title IX training. Snowberger wrote in an email to the Herald that he served as a Title IX officer for multiple years in other school districts where he worked.
Additionally, he wrote: “Mr. Geygan and I both hold Administrator Licenses from the State of Colorado Department of Education and conduct investigations into allegations of misbehavior on a daily basis.”
According to the Colorado Department of Education, an Administrator license is given to school employees who perform “managerial activities and is responsible for developing or interpreting policies or regulations and executing those policies or regulations through the direction of individuals at all levels and may supervise other employees.” The list of criteria for receiving the license does not include anything related to investigating sexual misconduct claims.
John Clune, a civil rights attorney in Denver for Hutchinson Black and Cook, a law firm that specializes in Title IX law, said the way 9-R handled this sexual assault claim likely did not violate any federal law.
“But at the same time, it’s probably not best practice,” he said. “You would think you’d want to make sure whoever is doing the investigation is a person with extensive training and experience with sex conduct allegations. And that person normally is someone in the Title IX coordinator position.”
Clune said school districts have leeway to create policies about how it investigates claims of student misbehavior. But, he said it’s “unusual” that Snowberger did not involve the Title IX officer earlier in the investigation.
“That’s not common practice,” Clune said. “But the nice thing about the Office of Civil Rights getting involved, is that it generally lights a fire under school districts to take a hard look at their policies.”
HHHGalido began her own investigation after meeting with the father July 23, when he filed a formal sexual assault complaint against the district.
Galido reported her findings Aug. 31. She wrote that there was evidence that the alleged victim was spanked on the buttocks, but she said there was “no evidence suggesting this action was intended ... to be sexual in nature” and said claims of sexual harassment were “unsubstantiated.”
The alleged victim’s father has said repeatedly “sexual assault is not in any way predicated on the intent of the perpetrator.”
“You cannot intentionally touch another person’s private parts or penetrate another against their wishes and claim, ‘Oh, I didn’t intend my actions to be sexual,’” he said. “Intent has no bearing on whether sexual assault has occurred or not.”
The district has a policy that allowed the boy’s father to challenge Snowberger’s and Galido’s findings in front of the 9-R’s board of directors. He met with the board in an executive session in September. The father recorded the meeting and provided the audio recording to the Herald.
The father read to board members the school district’s policy on sexual harassment and told them he believes the administration fails to understand “what sexual assault is.”
The district’s policy says sexual harassment includes “unwelcomed touching” defined as “patting, pinching or brushing against the body of another.”
According to the audio recording of the meeting, Snowberger responded to board members: “If we consider any spanking, patting to be sexual in nature, then we will definitely find ourselves addressing sexual assault on a regular basis. Sadly, children do things like that that sadly aren’t intended to be sexual in nature.”
Snowberger denied to the Herald that he made this comment. After learning the meeting was recorded, he said he stands by that statement.
The district’s board members ultimately said they supported the district’s investigations. Nancy Stubbs, board president, told the Herald the board of directors is confident in how the complaint was handled.
“We wish the boy well,” Stubbs said. “We hope they find some kind of closure and take care of whatever is going on.”
HHHThe father filed his complaint to the Office of Civil Rights on Oct. 3. The next day, by email, the office confirmed receipt of the complaint. Based on evidence it receives, the office takes about 30 days to evaluate the complaint to determine if the complaint warrants a full investigation. If OCR determines it will investigate the complaint, it will notify the father and District 9-R.
On Thursday, Snowberger told the Herald that the OCR had not received the complaint.
Snowberger previously told the Herald he supports the involvement of the Office of Civil Rights.
“We are encouraging that, to be honest with you,” he said.
He also said that the school district “probably needs to do work on written policy given by Colorado Association of School Boards.”
Galido’s report, too, recommends 9-R review its policies “to ensure ease of use and understanding.”
Adele Kimmel, a senior attorney at Public Justice, a national nonprofit legal advocacy organization that specializes in Title IX issues, said though it is common in K-12 schools for a principal to head sexual assault investigations, it isn’t what should be happening under Title IX. A lack of proper training for personnel investigating assault allegations can lead to serious issues, especially when dealing with very young children.
The school district’s handling of the investigation, Kimmel said, is not only a disservice to the alleged victim, it is also a disservice to the alleged perpetrator, who may need counseling or help.
“The kid that allegedly did this may need help to stop the behavior before it becomes a major problem,” she said. “And now is the time to nip it in the bud.”
The father of the alleged victim said his son was afraid to go to Riverview Elementary at the beginning of this school year because he knew the alleged perpetrator still attends the school.
The two boys were not placed in the same class, the father said, but it is a small school and the students encounter each other.
“Whether at university level or first grade, children should be able to go to school free from the effects of sexual harassment,” he said. “But (the school district) needs to be crystal clear on what sexual assault is, and they need to admit they have a problem before they work to fix it.”