Sexual harassment in schools is a serious topic that often seems to go ignored. It is not uncommon and students have expressed that after reporting, they are left feeling like reporting was useless and was a waste of time. There are policies set in place that are meant to protect students from incidents like sexual assault, but many feel that those policies have proven to not be enough. Confidentiality regarding the incident is granted to the students involved in the situation, both the victim and the accused. Students who have been accused or who are victims are both entitled to their own privacy regarding any incident that gets reported. School administrations must find a way to balance due process for the accused with support and safety for the victims. With that being said, all students interviewed for this piece are also entitled to their own confidentiality. Talking about sexual harassment and first-hand experience with it can be a very delicate topic. Sharing your story involving it can feel very vulnerable. Therefore, all of the students interviewed in this article will be referred to by pseudonyms so their names will remain unknown.
In society, women are often not believed or are easily dismissed after coming forward about a sexual assault incident. When women report sexual assault or harassment about people in power, they can be publicly villainized and targeted (Anita Hill, Monica Lewinsky, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford—the list goes on). The men who are usually to blame for incidents like this hold a power over the women they choose to harass. In a work environment, the perpetrator could be in a dominant position above the victim. However, in the case of sexual assault in schools, it can be a little different. In the cases of the people that I talked to, all of their harassers were people who had been their age or significantly older. With this information in mind, it does not mean that all upperclassmen should be feared. It instead is intended to shed light on the very apparent power dynamic between older classmates and younger students.
Rachel is a sophomore here at Franklin. In her freshman year of high school, a senior boy who she knew forcefully pushed himself onto her and attempted to push her into the bathroom. When this did not work, she tried to move away but he held her in place. After struggling for a bit, he backed up and started to walk away from her. She told me that after it had happened, she was frozen and didn’t know how to react. “All I could do was replay that exact moment over and over in my head. I kept thinking about how I was warned so much growing up about how I would most likely experience a situation where I was taken advantage of by a man, but I didn’t think it would have happened anytime soon.”
Rachel also shared with me her experience with reporting sexual assault to the school. She told me about the “No Contact Contract” that was given to her by the Franklin staff who handled the incident. She and the other student both signed this agreement which forbade either of the two from contacting each other through text, social media or in person. Rachel at first did not want to come forward to staff or teachers about this incident because she feared no one was going to believe her. “He was a really well known guy here,” she says. “He played a lot of sports here so I would probably consider him to have been popular in the sense that it felt like everyone knew him.” She explained to me how after everything had happened, she felt like people dismissed her experience entirely.
Phoebe (9) is also a student at Franklin. She shared with me her experience regarding sexual assault. In 8th grade, she and her friends all had different altercations between them and a fellow classmate who had been harassing them throughout the year. He would make sexual comments, touch them inappropriately, and force himself onto them when it was not wanted. She told me about a time when he had grabbed her and touched her inappropriately while she repeatedly said stop. “We were at the docks and I was in a bathing suit and he picked me up and put me over his shoulder.” She explained, “he tried to finger me even though I was screaming at him to stop.” She told me about how after it happened, she didn’t realize that many of her friends were going through the same thing.
After telling her friends what happened to her, many of them shared their own stories involving this student with each other. He had made comments about their bodies and told them about the “things he wanted to do to them” while defending himself by saying he was joking. When Phoebe decided that all of his actions were no longer acceptable, she and her friends contacted the school counselor so they could report their peer’s behavior. While doing that, he made all of these girls feel unsafe in their own school. The school’s administration made the decision to expel the student for the rest of his 8th grade year and he did not return to that school.
Students feeling safe in their own schools and with their peers is very important. To Scott Burns, a Vice Principal at Franklin, this is very important to him as part of the staff. “The safety and communication between admin and the victim is the most important,” Burns tells me. While talking with him about how Franklin handles sexual assault allegations, Burns informed me about Title IX. Title IX is a policy followed by all schools in the Portland Public Schools district, and most schools in the US. The law is in place to help handle cases of gender inequality in athletics, sexual or dating violence, discrimination based on parenting or pregnancy status, discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and sexual harassment.
The first thing that happens in a Title IX investigation is the report. PPS takes immediate action to make sure any and all harassment stops. The next step is safety planning or referral to resources. Depending on the circumstances, this is when a safety plan may be written to ensure that students affected feel safe. Next, a preliminary inquiry decides if a formal investigation is needed. If an informal resolution is appropriate, the process ends here. If more steps need to be taken, then they collect evidence and interviews. If there is enough evidence that a violation occurred, the final report is written and a disciplinary hearing is held. A hearings officer or other neutral decision maker reviews the information to determine if a violation of the disciplinary code is more likely than not to have occurred.
When this investigation is complete, the only thing left to do is ensure that safety plans are ongoing. On the Title IX website, it repeatedly explains that student safety is the main priority, which is how all schools should handle situations that are involving sexual assault and harassment. The victims who have to go through these incidents deserve to feel safe in their daily life, especially while at school. Besides making sure students are feeling safe, they also should not be feeling like they are going through this alone. As a school we need to make sure that we are having conversations about sexual harassment in our own school environment so we are not leaving people feeling that reporting incidents won’t do anything. If you or anyone you know feels like they were in a situation where they were harassed or assaulted in a sexual manner at school, tell a trusted adult if you feel safe. If reporting directly to a staff member does not feel comfortable, visit the Safe Oregon anonymous tip line website or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.