In the weeks since a Tampa Bay Times investigation chronicled serious flaws in the handling of sexual harassment complaints at Blake High School, administrators have taken actions designed to better hear student concerns.
Since January, Blake hosted a district training on Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to investigate sexual harassment complaints; held a forum for students to share concerns; invited students to submit anonymous feedback and solutions; and announced the formation of student committees focused on various issues, including sexual assault. In at least one instance, the school appears to be evaluating the way it previously responded to a sexual harassment complaint from 2020.
Students spoke openly at the forum last month about their frustrations and the need to feel safe at school, according to a recording of the event obtained by the Times.
Principal Jesse Salters was clear with students that the forum was just one of many steps toward change. “This is just the beginning,” he told them.
“I know some of you say, ‘They’re not going to do anything,’ ” Salters said. “No. I want you to understand this is the beginning to make things happen.”
One student asked whether the school’s actions were in response to the Times’ investigation.
“Yes, it’s part of it; I won’t deny that,” Salters said, but added that officials had earlier discussions about holding a forum for students.
For months, the Times has been reporting on problems at Blake. The newsroom’s two-part investigation revealed how students who sought help for sexual harassment instead felt belittled and punished by those in charge. Title IX experts told the Times the problems at Blake raised broader concerns about the way sexual harassment is handled by Hillsborough County Public Schools — a district already under federal scrutiny for not following Title IX years earlier.
After the stories were published, parents and students demanded that the district improve its response and launch an investigation into Hillsborough’s policies and practices for responding to sexual harassment. One former Blake student organized a protest before a January school board meeting and started an online petition asking for an independent review. Advocates called for the same.
The stories have also prompted conversations among students across Hillsborough schools who saw their own experiences reflected in what happened at Blake and hope attention is given to students districtwide.
During an interview with the Times, school board member Jessica Vaughn praised students who were brave enough to come forward. She said she has met with two Blake parents and is open to hearing from others who have suggestions on how to make the district’s policies on sexual harassment better.
“I hope that all of our students and young people feel empowered to speak out,” Vaughn said. “I absolutely do care about how you feel.”
The district has not publicly acknowledged that a problem exists with its handling of sexual harassment.
In a statement to the Times, Hillsborough spokesperson Tanya Arja would not answer specific questions about the recent actions at Blake. She suggested the efforts students described happen all the time.
“Hillsborough County Public Schools continues to make the health, safety, and mental wellness of all students one of our top priorities,” Arja said.
Salters and Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Blake students told the Times that the school’s recent efforts were not common practice. So far, students say they’ve appreciated the approach.
Rebeca Braukman, a senior at Blake who was featured in the Times’ series, said she loved the training and learned about resources at the district level for students reporting or experiencing sexual harassment. She said a trainer recognized her name from the stories, pulled her aside and asked if she was OK. The trainer also called Braukman’s mom to make sure, she said.
It was a marked difference for Braukman, who repeatedly felt demoralized when she reported behavior that made her uncomfortable at school.
“It’s just so crazy to see they are actually caring about stuff now,” Braukman said. “I felt seen, heard.”
Braukman said administrators told her they are investigating an incident from spring 2020 when she reported a student for sexual harassment but seemingly nothing was done or documented. Braukman said school officials told her they would make a record of her past complaint and retrain the educators who didn’t respond appropriately. Braukman sent the Times a photo of a Title IX case report, dated Feb. 9, for an incident from 2020.
“Everyone just kept saying, ‘We have failed you so many times and we are really sorry,’ ” Braukman said.
Other students have also responded positively to the increased dialogue.
“They’re trying to listen to us, and it’s very nice,” said Levi Jaspard, a senior at Blake who spoke at the forum. “It just felt as though light were being shined.”
Jaspard said the forum allowed students to address officials in a group, so teens didn’t feel isolated while speaking up. Jaspard also commended the school for providing a mechanism for anonymous feedback. They appreciated that a representative from the district attended the forum because it signaled increased accountability and a chance to be heard by top-level officials.
Blake sophomore Hannah Cowan, who also goes by Dylan, said they found the forum so moving they left shaking and on the verge of tears.
“It was very empowering to be able to sit there and directly talk to administration,” Cowan said.
Cowan wrote about the forum and the new student committees in the journalism program’s newsletter. They proposed using the newsletter, which is distributed on Instagram, as a way to more clearly communicate administration’s actions to students. In some instances, Cowan said, school officials may be working on an issue but students don’t know because it’s not communicated.
Cowan said Salters was enthusiastic and promised to provide funding for printed copies of the newsletter for students without social media.
Administrators appear to be listening, Cowan said, but it’s bittersweet: The problem is bigger than Blake and the solutions need to be bigger, too. They hope students at other schools will get the same consideration.
It’s notable, Cowan said, how hard it was for Blake to get to this place.