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At emotional Hillsborough schools meeting, calls for investigation into sexual harassment policies

Public seeks action in response to a Times investigation detailing how Blake High students sought help but instead felt belittled and punished.
Rufus del Valle, a former student at Blake High School, breaks down as he speaks about his experiences at the school during the public comment portion of the Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday at the district offices in Tampa.
Rufus del Valle, a former student at Blake High School, breaks down as he speaks about his experiences at the school during the public comment portion of the Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday at the district offices in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2021|Updated Dec. 15, 2021

In tears, and using a walker, a former Blake High student made his way to the front of the Hillsborough School Board meeting Tuesday to once again try to make himself heard.

Rufus del Valle’s leg was broken, so he’d had to get his dad to drive him to the meeting. He’d had to take off work, too. But he wanted school officials to respond to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that detailed how Blake High students sought help from sexual harassment but instead felt belittled and punished. He was one of them.

“I came here today on a broken leg to tell you all how much pain you have put the students in your care through,” said del Valle, 21. “You all did not save me. You did not save anybody at this school.”

The story featured del Valle’s account of feeling afraid while in school and then recounted how, after graduation, he’d gone to high-level district officials and begged for help.

“I have lived with this shame for so long, and today I wash myself of it,” he said, shaking as he spoke of his time at Blake. “I give it to the people responsible. I give it to you all for failing all the children in Hillsborough County.”

He wasn’t the only one who wanted the district to act.

“When are we going to take effective action on this serious issue?” asked Scott Hottenstein, president of the Democratic Public Education Caucus of Florida.

“I’d like to believe that my children are in a world where they aren’t afraid, where their voices can be heard and their experiences are valid,” said Jodi Rothman. “School should be a safe place, and it should be a place where students learn to speak up for themselves.”

Blake parent Jeffrey Failes called on the district to launch an independent investigation that includes looking into district policies and procedures. He told the board he was shocked, horrified and full of rage.

“I am here to ask for fundamental change to an institutional culture where our children are not listened to,” he said. “You must listen to our children.”

Jeffrey Failes, a parent of a Blake High School student, speaks during public comment while attending the Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday.
Jeffrey Failes, a parent of a Blake High School student, speaks during public comment while attending the Hillsborough County School Board meeting Tuesday. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Superintendent Addison Davis said that the district cannot comment publicly on specific issues because of student privacy laws and called it “a very complex matter.” He told the crowd that silence is not meant to signify that the district doesn’t care and reiterated that the district must follow rules regarding how it shares information.

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“We will continue to address and ensure that every one of our learners have a safe environment,” he said. He also cast the issue — which he framed as incidents that may or may not have happened — as something that happened in the past, from 2016 to 2019. At that point, del Valle shouted that the issue still was going on today. The Times published a story in June about teens at Blake who tried to report a teacher in 2021 and felt unheard and hurt by the process.

Davis gave no specifics about how or if any of the concerns students or parents raised would be addressed. While student privacy laws do limit officials from speaking about specific students, they do not prevent them from speaking about policies, procedures or district actions.

“No one was asking him to name any students’ names or any student details,” del Valle said. “I felt like he was intentionally trying to reframe the discussion so it was about individual students and what was going to be done about them — rather than about the system as a whole and what sort of proactive actions were going to be taken.”

As to what was said at the meeting, Failes noted to the Times there didn’t appear to be an acknowledgement from leaders that a problem exists. Failes said he feels that it is clear students don’t feel heard and change is needed.

Hearing del Valle speak, he said, was an intense experience.

“I could feel his pain,” he said of del Valle’s speech, noting he could see others making sounds of shock and crying as del Valle spoke.

The Times investigation was based on interviews with 22 current and former students, student disciplinary files, federal and court records, emails and text messages.

The story focused on one school, Blake High, but three experts told the Times the reporting raised concerns about the district’s compliance with Title IX, the federal law that requires schools to keep children safe from sexual harassment.

The district has gotten into trouble before for not following Title IX and remains under federal scrutiny. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights investigated Hillsborough 10 years ago and found the district had retaliated against a student, and the department required the district to make several changes. The agency has not lifted its agreement with the district and says it is still actively monitoring Hillsborough. The district says it did what was asked and has not heard from the agency since 2014.

It was Failes’ first school board meeting. He’d never felt like he needed to go to one before, he said. Reading the story, he told the Times, threw his whole nervous system into shock.

“It is of utmost importance to me that something is done,” he told the Times.

The night he read the story, he said he was so upset he couldn’t sleep. He said on Monday, when he dropped his teen off at the school, he waited in the office until he could speak with someone. He wanted to know what the school district and the school were going to do to restore trust. He said he spoke to Assistant Principal Andrew Wayman and then Principal Jesse Salters. There was defensiveness, he said, but also he did feel somewhat heard.

“I felt extremely disappointed that the first response was in defense of the school and the district and not in defense of the children,” he said.

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