Students Demand Accountability for Survivors of Sexual Abuse
By Keiko Casserly '23
Students at George Washington High School in San Francisco's Richmond District walk out of class for a rally against sexual abuse on Nov. 10, 2021. (Photo: Beth LaBerge/KQED)
In spite of the many promises school boards have made to protect their students on campus, there is an (almost) shocking number of stories about high schools sweeping reports of sexual violence under the rug, stories which have been exposed by students across the United States. This may sound like a pessimistic take, but with the country’s long history of mishandling cases of sexual assault and harassment, this comes as no surprise. For example, investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice have revealed years mishandling of sexual-violence cases within police departments in cities such as Baltimore and New Orleans.
Sexual violence is illegal under federal law, and it is defined as gender discrimination under Title IX, yet it often falls just short of being taken seriously. For instance, as a freshman at Myers Park High School in North Carolina, Serena Evans reported the sexual harassment she experienced on a daily basis to the school’s staff. This included groping, lewd gestures, and vulgar comments. In response, the school administration simply advised her to remain patient, as boys “mature at a slower” rate than girls do, according to the Washington Post.
Some high-school administrations in the Bay Area have not proven to be any better. Instead, they seem to be following this trend, at the expense of their students. "People reach out to staff through emails and in-person and nothing happens. They don't get any results,” said Phoebe Anzalone, a Lincoln High student, according to FOX News. Oakland students at Bishop O’Dowd High School took things into their own hands by creating an Instagram account, @odowdprotectors, which they use to spread awareness and anonymously share experiences of harassment. Students are even warned about classmates known to sexually harass girls through this account.
On November 10, 2021, hundreds of students from George Washington High School, Lowell High School and Abraham Lincoln High School walked out of class to show support for their peers — for survivors of sexual assault. Students held signs reading “My Clothes Do Not Determine My Consent” and “If You’re Not Angry, You’re Not Paying Attention”. This is not an isolated issue, but rather a district-wide one. In fact, this particular rally was only one of the several rallies that were organized by Bay Area high-school students last fall. Jack Guan, a senior at George Washington High, said, “It's not like we're protesting each school administration — we're protesting all administrations,” according to KQED. Influenced by the actions of others, spreading from school to school, this movement grew in numbers, as students demanded that predators be held accountable. On December 10, another walkout was executed. Nearly 1,000 students gathered in front of the City Hall and the school district office in one of the largest rallies held during this time.
Reesa is a high-school senior in the SFUSD system who attended this walkout. She explained to the San Francisco Examiner that, despite telling the administration how difficult it is for her, she is still in the same class as her assaulter, a class that she regularly skips because of this. “I’m losing my education. That person isn’t losing their education. You should be protecting me,” said Reesa. According to Aliyah Baruch, a senior at Lowell High School, there is not a single girl she knows on her campus that has not experienced some form of sexual harassment. Even four years ago, SFUSD officials failed to help enforce a restraining order a student placed on her assailant, threatening her with disciplinary action when she made complaints about the situation, according to SF Gate.
These repeated failures have served as fuel for the feelings of anger and grief harbored by students. “People have been pushing for change for so long and SFUSD isn’t listening [and] it needs to change,” Baruch said to the San Francisco Chronicle. Students are tired of being ignored and these walkouts have created a domino effect as more schools’ student populations band together. “It’s so monumental because it’s a group effort and it’s actually getting [officials’] attention,” a senior at Ruth Asawa High School, Daniela Oropeza, told the San Francisco Examiner. In fact, the SFUSD recently released a letter to all middle- and high-schools within the district, addressing their students’ concerns. In the letter, the district stated that they take their students seriously, reiterating that “sexual harassment has no place in [their] schools.”
Superintendent Vincent Matthews and Office of Equity Executive Director Keasara Williams wrote in the letter that “SFUSD is committed to taking all appropriate steps to make sure we educate, prevent and address any incidents of sexual harassment that occur in our schools,” with the letter including information on how to report incidents of sexual harassment, as well as how they are investigated. Through the sheer will of these high-school students, their voices are finally being acknowledged. We can only hope that the SFUSD will make good on their promises.