Over the last 15 years, I’ve had the privilege of educating thousands of young people in schools across Maine. And without a doubt, one of the most challenging aspects of this has been hearing students say that nothing happened when they made reports to their school regarding sexual harassment or assault. My encouragement to “keep telling” until they got the help they needed felt inadequate because I knew few would. And who could blame them? They had lost their trust in those persons and places of power who should’ve defended them. In some cases, survivors weren’t believed or ignored and even punished for reporting.
Then, in 2017, the #MeToo movement took off. A reckoning, long overdue. The Education Department found that reports of sexual assaults at elementary, middle, and high schools began increasing: between 2015 and 2018, they rose by more than 50%. And this statistic translated into real life - the change was noticeable during my discussions with students. They started asking questions I had never gotten before; it was becoming evident that social media positively impacted sexual violence awareness. Young survivors were charged, changed - somehow newly afire with an understanding of the systematic wrongs perpetrated against them, and a drive to make it right.
With the arrival of the pandemic’s hardships, I feared for the momentum of the growing self-advocacy among students. I see now that I far underestimated the resiliency of young people and the potential for good contained in the connective powers of the Internet. Students all over the country, individually and collectively, are protesting their schools’ mishandling of their reports. One student described it as “this kind of kinetic force that was going to come out one way or another,” she said. “And so I think once they’re back on campus, it’s almost like the level of tolerance is maybe lower and combined with the sense of empowerment to speak out is higher.”
Sereniti Simpson, 17, a junior at Olympic High School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, helped organize a student protest and walkout in October after another student was alleged to have been allowed to play on the football team despite having been accused of sexual assault. The rally called for schools to have better “precautions put in place for a safer environment for sexual assault survivors,” she said.
“I wish there weren’t a reason I would have to have a protest,” she said. “I wish that these female voices would already be heard, to begin with, and that they won’t even have to go through this, but because nothing is being done, we as teenagers and we as the youth have to take a stand because the older generation is doing nothing and kind of just passing it along.”
Although legal protections and enforcement are not as strong as they could be, there are protections in place, and they’re crucial tools in our - and in students’ - fight against sexual violence. One of my responsibilities as an educator is to make sure students have the knowledge and tools to do this.
Here are some of the basics I share with them:
Schools Are Legally Responsible to Help Survivors Who Report Violence
Schools that receive federal funding are legally required to respond to reports about sexual violence, sexual harassment, dating violence, and stalking. While a school may tell a survivor of violence to go to the police to report an incident, they are still required to help you with academic accommodations if you report struggling with sexual assault, stalking, dating violence, or any of the above situations to your counselor, teacher, or another school administrator. Schools can - and must - support survivors in a range of ways, including but not limited to:
Every School Must Have a Title IX Coordinator
Title IX relates to sexual harassment/assault in schools. It is s a civil rights law that prohibits all educational institutions that receive federal money from discriminating against students on the basis of sex. Sexual harassment/assault is a form of discrimination because it can limit or prevent a student from participating in and benefiting from a school’s educational program.
Every School Must Have and Make Known Procedures for Students to File Complaints of Sex Discrimination
If a student is experiencing sexual violence, such as sexual harassment, we encourage them to document all behaviors and incidents. Details should include the date, time, description of incident, location of incident (physical location or technology used?), witness name(s), etc. They should also keep any evidence they may have, like photos, video, screenshots, or other items. If they do report to the school and/or the police, they should document who the report was made to (name, office/org, badge or identification number).
Most importantly, I let students know that our advocates are available 24/7. To connect to one of our advocates, they can call the Maine Sexual Assault Helpline at 1-800-871-7741.
Lastly, thank you to the extraordinary teachers that are our partners in this work, inviting our educators into their classrooms year after year. The pressure on them throughout this pandemic has been well above what they signed up for, yet we have seen them step up in ways that probably many folks are unaware of. We are so grateful for you!
If you are interested in scheduling a presentation for your community or school group, please contact Kathleen at Kathleen.firstname.lastname@example.org or call 207-512-0095.
Written by Kathleen Paradis, Prevention Educator at SAC&SC
The Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center is funded in part by Maine's Department of Health and Human Services, United Way of Kennebec Valley, and your generous public and private donations.
In accordance with federal regulations, the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center does not discriminate in the access to or provision of its services.
For help, call us at 1-800-871-7741. Phone help is available 24/7.
Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center serves Kennebec & Somerset Counties.
SAC&SC is committed to providing support to anyone impacted by sexual violence, regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, ability, or any other identity.