RICHMOND -- One day after a damning federal report revealed widespread sexual misconduct at West Contra Costa school district campuses, district officials asserted Thursday that improvements have been made.
The district issued a prepared statement on Superintendent Bruce Harter's letterhead after the announcement of an agreement between the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the district that included 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.
"While everyone in the West Contra Costa Unified School District regrets the circumstances and incidents that have led us to the resolution agreement with the (Office for Civil Rights), we're pleased with the progress that we've made since 2009 in addressing the issues and school culture that existed then and to a lesser degree exists today," the statement read.
School district board members interviewed Thursday also insisted that the district has made significant strides in addressing student safety in recent years.
In a letter from the Office for Civil Rights to Harter dated Nov. 6, investigators criticized the district for not responding "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."
District spokesman Marin Trujillo did not respond to email inquiries for further comment from Harter, including the district's handling of specific incidents documented in the investigation letter. The entire district statement can be read at www.contracostatimes.com.
Elected board members noted that the report covered incidents from several years ago and vowed to focus on student safety.
"There is a time element here in that this report comes out now, but the things that happened were years ago," said Randy Enos, a board member since 2012. "But our focus is extremely strong, and we are adamant that we are doing all we can to have the safest environment possible."
Madeline Kronenberg, a board member since 2006, said the district has taken several steps in recent years to improve student safety, including installing health centers with trained counselors at each school and a system of security cameras.
"The report is something we can use to get even better," she said. "We are not perfect, but from where we were when they conducted their investigation to where we are today is a huge turnaround. I wish the department had called us to check in because they would have seen a lot of changes."
Kronenberg cited data that was also included in the district's statement, including a decrease in expulsions from 180 in 2009-10 to five in 2012-13, along with plunging suspension rates. Kronenberg and Enos were able to review the report for the first time Thursday.
Office for Civil Rights spokesman David Thomas said the "investigation here did reveal that sexually harassing, student-on-student behavior permeated the educational environment at school sites and, while the district has taken steps to address it, much more remains to be done."
As part of the agreement, the district is required to provide 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.
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.
Thomas said the Office for Civil Rights could not discuss what triggered the investigation, but "in general, compliance review sites are selected based on various sources of information, including statistical data and information from parents, advocacy groups, the media and community organizations."
Former board member Karen Pfeifer, who served from 2004 to 2008, said she was "very concerned but only a little surprised" by the grim findings.
"We had a little security force, badly trained and inadequately supervised, and we were struggling with getting a handle on an environment that was full of fighting, sexual behavior, drugs and alcohol and gangs," Pfeifer said. "We knew we had a problem."
Pfeifer said the situation began to markedly improve near the end of her tenure when the district began hiring local law enforcement agencies to oversee campus security.
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/sfbaynewsrogers.