During a heated meeting, the Burbank Unified School District Board recently heard moving testimony from about a dozen former and current students and parents who gave accounts of abuse — including sexual assaults — that allegedly took place in BUSD schools, prompting board President Steve Ferguson to call for an “audit of all sexual assault claims from the past three years.”
The emotional meeting on March 17 saw accusers and their supporters confront the board, demanding action and accountability for what they called a lack of action, with one speaker also accusing the BUSD of “neglect of Title IX procedure.” The board is facing mounting pressure to take immediate action to address the abuse issue and ensure the safety of students.
“I did not promote in 8th-grade because of my lack of attendance. There was no action ever taken to protect me from [an alleged abuser]. Burbank Unified School District and Burbank Police Department failed me,” said one speaker, a minor, during the meeting. She alleged that she was sexually assaulted by a fellow student while on the grounds of John Muir Middle School.
“I am shocked to hear these stories,” Debra Gilmore, a school administrator at the Independent Learning Academy in Burbank, told the board. “There is no way that a young girl is going to put her vulnerability on stage like this if it didn’t really happen. Why would any person do that if it wasn’t real?”
The details of sexual assault allegations, the names of minors involved and their parents are not being reported by the Leader due to the sensitivity of such cases. However, abuses alleged by speakers primarily referenced on-campus rape, though some allegations made mention of off-campus sexual assault, molestation or physical assault.
“The administration takes all reports of sexual misconduct very seriously,” said BUSD Superintendent Matt Hill in an email to BUSD stakeholders. “Administrators work closely with local authorities when allegations are brought to their attention. Reports about misconduct that occurs on school grounds or within school programs and activities are investigated with care and sensitivity, consistent with policies and procedures established by the Board of Education.”
Title IX is a federal law that provides protection against sexual discrimination, including sexual violence and harassment, in education programs that receive federal funding. When a school district receives a report of a potential Title IX violation, it must respond promptly and effectively, with special attention to the needs and rights of students making the reports.
The playbook is clear on how a district is required to respond to a report that may involve a potential Title IX violation, which can include reports of sexual assault on school campuses.
Sandra E. Hodgin, founder and CEO of Title IX Consulting Group, which provides expert legal consulting services for K-12, higher education, students, and law firms for all Title IX matters, said a school district must conduct an investigation that is fair, impartial and trauma-informed, taking into account the complex dynamics of sexual assault cases.
Throughout the entire process, Hodgin said, the district must take measures to proactively provide supportive measures such as mental health options, and to ensure the safety and well-being of the complainant, such as issuing a no-contact order or adjusting class schedules.
“There should be open communication as far as the investigation is concerned. Even before the final investigation report, there should be a lot of proactive check-ins making sure students are OK,” Hodgin told the Leader.
The district has made it clear through public emails and statements that mental health services are available through its partner the Family Services Agency, a nonprofit social service agency dedicated to providing quality mental health care for all persons experiencing domestic violence, bullying and other forms of interpersonal violence.
Hodgin said the neglect of Title IX procedures in school districts is not uncommon: “I see it a lot in the cases that come across my desk. I see it nationally in just about every state.”
In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights office found Chicago Public Schools routinely mishandled reports of sexual assaults and were frequently in violation of Title IX in their response to student reports, the department said.
One Burbank-based activist, Anastasia Chaglasian — on behalf of the Youth Power Project, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of youth-led institutions — is working to organize with BUSD students. Chaglasian has called for the resignation of Assistant Superintendent John Paramo, the district’s lead Title IX coordinator.
“Countless instances of indescribable sexual violence against students have been reported to Paramo’s administration, but no action has been taken. Every instance, each heinous in its own right, has received little to no attention, but each survivor deserves to see their perpetrator face consequences,” Chaglasian said in an email to the Leader.
During the meeting, Hill assured Burbank residents that each complaint, led by Paramo and other district Title IX coordinators, Sarah Niemann and Stacy Cashman, is investigated per legal requirements. He added that the justice system can sometimes feel “cold and detached.”
“We have to look at the processes that we have in place to make sure they are trauma informed,” Hill said. “How do we make sure that our process doesn’t feel as cold and doesn’t feel so responsive?”
“It is clear that has to change,” Hill added.
Meanwhile, at the meeting, a student who is a minor said: “Because [administrators] failed to take me seriously regarding [my abuser] and my allegations against him, more people were allegedly raped, beaten and impregnated.”
In December 2022, about a dozen students gathered in front of John Burroughs High School to protest the school’s response to an alleged series of sexual assaults that students said were making them feel unsafe on campus.
The demonstrations were put on by more than a dozen students who said that one alleged offender, a male student, also a minor, is responsible for multiple sexual assaults.
One person took to social media in December 2022, saying that a Burroughs assistant principal did not follow administrative policy in responding to her initial complaint of sexual assault, which she said was reported in August 2022.
“I reported my sexual assault with my [police] case number to [an administrator] here … and she ignored Title IX, she didn’t reach out to the police, and she said she forgot it ever happened,” the same alleged victim said in a public TikTok in December.
A source close to that situation told the Leader that more than two months after the initial complaint was made to the school, neither the Burbank Police Department’s school resource officer nor the victim’s parents had been contacted regarding the incident.
Title IX requires that the school’s compliance officer investigate and compile a comprehensive report of the facts surrounding the case within 60 days of receiving it.
The special meeting of the school board was initially scheduled to discuss the district’s site safety plan after a man entered the campus of Burbank High School and allegedly committed a series of sexual assaults on March 6, according to police reports, though the bulk of the meeting was dedicated to hearing and addressing student testimony.
The suspect in that case recently pleaded not guilty on March 8 to a felony sexual assault charge and two other counts of misdemeanor annoyance of a child under the age of 18.
Ferguson told the Leader that the audit of sexual assault claims would come back to the board as a report from BUSD staff, meaning that it is likely the audit will be conducted internally and not by a third party.
“We have to do better, without a doubt. … Tonight was not just an amalgamation of all things chaotic and crazy. We have several issues. We have a Burbank High School safety situation which happened last week, but we are now hearing your stories being elevated in new ways, both here and on social media,” Ferguson said in his response to speakers at the Friday meeting.
“For the folks who are here tonight, I don’t think there is a thing we can say to restore faith in the safety we attempt to offer,” he added.
The district will hold additional town-hall style meetings on Tuesday, March 28, and Thursday, March 30, to discuss the events at Burbank High School on March 6.
A date is not yet set for the board to hear results of the requested audit of reported sexual assault cases.
First published in the March 25 print issue of the Burbank Leader.