A military wife who has spent 4½ years fighting for more protections for child victims of sexual harassment in Defense Department schools said she is gratified that senators are addressing the issue.
“While my daughter has been out of the [DoD] school system for three years now, I’d invested too much to let it go and would never have let it go, no matter how long it took,” said Army wife Susan Roeder.
Roeder played an “instrumental role” in legislation that has been passed by the Senate, according to Adam Webb, spokesman for Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. , who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on personnel. The Senate version of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill would require Department of Defense Education Activity officials to establish policies and procedures by March 31, 2019, to protect students who are victims of sexual harassment.
A similar provision is not in the House version; it will be addressed along with other differences during the conference process.
In December 2016, Military Times reported Susan Roeder’s efforts to get better protections for victims of sexual harassment, following her daughter Gretchen’s experience at Vilseck High School in Germany in 2013. Gretchen reported that a classmate urinated into a bottle while seated near her during class. Later, as they exited the room, he allegedly asked Gretchen, “Did you see it that time?” ― referring to his penis.
Eighteen months after the incident, Susan Roeder found out that the school’s principal had classified it as misconduct, not sexual harassment, which meant that there was no record of the incident ever happening and that DoDEA’s record would “stay clean,” Roeder said. The alleged perpetrator was later returned to the U.S., along with his family, and there was no disciplinary hearing.
Roeder has pursued the issue since then with DoDEA and DoD officials, in an effort to convince them to establish clear policies regarding sexual harassment of students in DoDEA. To this day, Roeder said, the incident involving Gretchen is still not classified as sexual harassment at all levels within DoDEA and DoD.
Susan and Gretchen Roeder met with Senate staffers in March about Gretchen’s experiences, concerned that DoDEA’s response was inadequate.
“Gretchen got the affirmation that she never got at the school level or from anyone within DoDEA,” Susan Roeder said. “They were so professional and so supportive of her strength and willingness to allow me to pursue this. It took away a lot of pain.”
Their visit was coincidentally soon after Associated Press articles were published detailing problems with child-on-child sexual assault on military bases, including military schools, and the issues with how law enforcement officials on and off base deal with the cases. Senators also included a provision in their version of the defense authorization bill that requires the DoD Inspector General to conduct a comprehensive assessment of DoD’s and DoDEA’s policies and procedures regarding misconduct, including sexual misconduct.
“Senator Tillis is grateful for Susan and Gretchen Roeder, for their courage in bringing attention to this issue so military children have the protections they need moving forward,” said Webb, spokesman for Tillis. Roeder met with the senator’s staff members and with staff members of the Senate Armed Services’ subcommittee on personnel.
“We were able to review information she provided and draft language to make these important changes,” Webb said.
Concerns about response
Roeder raised concerns about how sexual harassment complaints are investigated, how parents can appeal DoDEA decisions and how victims are or aren’t informed of punishments. There was no plan to help victims, or for any rehabilitation for offenders to prevent them from continuing the behavior.
She contended DoDEA wasn’t following federal laws outlining public schools’ responsibilities in addressing student discrimination, denying DoDEA students the rights other public school students have under Title IX. Under Title IX, discrimination on the basis of sex can include sexual harassment or sexual violence; a 2000 presidential executive order mandated that those laws apply to DoDEA schools, too.
“The committee believes that DoDEA’s current policies and procedures for response to sexual harassment cases fail to respect the rights of victims and lead to inadequate and insufficient responses to complaints of sexual harassment in its schools,” stated the Senate Armed Service Committee’s report language accompanying the proposal.
In 2016, Defense officials told Military Times they were investigating Roeder’s concerns. At a December 2017 Dependents Education Council meeting, officials acknowledged that before August 2017, DoDEA had handled claims of alleged discrimination from students, parents or employees informally without providing notice of their rights and how to file a formal complaint.
DoDEA has taken a number of steps, including some in the last few months, to establish policies and procedures to protect students who are victims of sexual harassment, said DoD spokeswoman Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, following their establishment in 2016 of a DoDEA Civil Rights Steering Group.
On Feb. 16, DoDEA director Thomas Brady issued a directive stating DoDEA’s commitment to ensuring no one is subject to any form of sexual harassment in any DoDEA programs or activities. It outlined procedures for handling reports of sexual harassment, including requiring DoDEA to promptly investigate and address the conduct. According to DoDEA’s website, students who are victims of sexual harassment and students who are alleged perpetrators have the right to seek neutral counseling through school counselors.
Other steps include:
- Establishing a civil rights program and hiring a civil rights program manager in 2017.
- Launching a DoDEA Sexual Harassment Awareness and Prevention website with definitions, examples, reporting procedures, how to respond, rights and responsibilities and points of contact for further help.
- Creating a student “Know Your Rights: Sexual Harassment” flyer and “Responding to Sexual Harassment” flow chart with definitions, reporting guidance and resources.
- Establishing working relationships with the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division for guidance on developing new student complaints resolution policy and reporting process.
- Establishing a working group to develop a searchable database to capture and track sexual harassment and discriminatory misconduct incidents.
- Revising the Student Information System database to ensure proper identification and documentation of these incidents.
DoD has also established a tiger team with various agencies to include DoDEA. The team is developing a coordinated response to reports of juvenile-on-juvenile sexual assault, Gleason said.
Roeder said the AP stories showed that problems of sexual harassment and sexual assault aren’t limited to schools on base, and she would like officials to address the issue on a broader level. For example, she said, if the Family Advocacy Program could be broadened to include juvenile-on-juvenile cases. Currently the program gets involved if the alleged perpetrator is an adult. In addition, the long-standing issue of jurisdiction between military installations and local law enforcement authorities needs to be addressed, so that cases don’t fall through the cracks.
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.