After being met with little acknowledgment at a recent Hillsborough School Board meeting, people are organizing in response to a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found teens felt belittled and punished when they sought help to stop sexual harassment.
Former Blake High School student Rufus del Valle, who was featured in the Times story, launched an online petition this week demanding an independent investigation into the school district’s policies regarding sexual harassment. He is also planning a protest at the Jan. 11 School Board meeting.
These efforts come after calls at Tuesday’s board meeting for the district to investigate. Del Valle was among those demanding action. Superintendent Addison Davis made brief remarks, saying officials cannot speak because of student privacy laws and asking the public to not interpret the silence as the district not caring.
But that is exactly how some students have perceived it.
“The fact that we’ve gotten to this point where Rufus has confronted the board members and they still didn’t seem like they care? That’s just a sad thing,” said Alexandra Reyes, a former student featured in the Times story. “They have the power to change so much about this district.”
She said she didn’t understand why the district wouldn’t want to investigate after hearing from students that they feel unsafe and unheard in the current system.
Blake High junior Kassandra Glor also felt let down by the district’s response.
“It makes me feel like they do not care about us because if so many students are going through this, why did you not change it? Or try to help it? Or even speak about it?” Glor said.
Glor said she felt seen by the Times story and, as a result, hopeful there might be change.
“I didn’t think a lot could be done about it,” she said. “Or that a lot of people went through the same thing.”
Civil rights advocates say the Times story shines an important spotlight on sexual harassment and student rights in K-12, which have gotten little attention. The federal law Title IX requires schools to protect students from sexual harassment, but a lot of the focus has been on colleges.
“Finally, somebody is calling attention to this,” said Theresa Prichard, associate director and general counsel for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence. “I feel like we are going around trying to put out fires, and there needs to be this massive shift, and there needs to be change.”
Prichard said it’s critical that current and former students have support and don’t feel alone as they call on Hillsborough to act.
“It’s really important for the public to know what is going on and to get involved,” she said.
The Times story also was cited in a brief filed this week by the American Civil Liberties Union and 15 other advocacy groups — including the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence — in support of a student in a Georgia case that is on appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. In that case, a student reported being raped and was suspended, according to court filings. The 11th Circuit covers Florida, so the outcome would affect Florida students.
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Sandra Park, a senior attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, said they want the higher court to make clear that when a student reports sexual harassment, it is protected speech. The school should not be punishing that student, she said.
“It’s a really terrible message and directly contrary to the protections of Title IX,” Park said.
The Times story detailed how two Blake students reported to police that they’d been raped on campus and were suspended. The incidents were years apart and involved the same boy. One of the girls spoke to the Times and gave her account of how traumatizing the experience of being disbelieved and punished had been. She told the Times she hoped that by speaking about what happened — something she struggles with — district leaders might in the future not punish someone who is seeking help, consider how they can be more sensitive and reflect on the fact that it is difficult to come forward and students don’t make these allegations lightly.
After reading the story, former Blake student Erin Melvin, now 21, told the Times that she also tried to report the same boy and, instead of getting help, she was blamed and humiliated.
Melvin said the boy cornered her one day and asked her to have sex in the bathroom and, when she refused, told her she was so small he could just pick her up and force her to have sex with him. She said the incident had been scary, but reporting it was worse.
Melvin said she went to a school official, who told Melvin she was tired of hearing girls complain about this particular boy. She was told that she and other girls should be ashamed for making false reports. Melvin said administration officials viewed the security footage, which backed up her story and showed the boy putting his fingers in her hair, whispering to her and touching her.
“I remember them saying cynically that they thought that if it wasn’t for the clothes I was wearing, he probably wouldn’t be interested and that probably wouldn’t have happened,” she recounted to the Times.
She was crushed, she said, and disappointed.
“I felt if they aren’t listening to me, who else are they not listening to? The proof is right here,” she said.
She said all that happened was she had to change her lunch period to get away from him, upending some of her classes. She said she wasn’t offered counseling, and she walked out of the office in tears, embarrassed. Meanwhile, she said, she was afraid one day the boy would come back and make good on his promise and there wouldn’t be any help.
Park said if students are coming forward saying they don’t feel safe to report because of punitive or other responses from the school, the district should be engaging in self-reflection about how they respond to students.
Del Valle said he felt Davis’ comments were an attempt to reframe the issue, as no one was asking him to speak about specific students.
“They need transparency, and they also need to think about how you build trust again,” said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women who has spent more than 30 years studying sexual harassment in schools. “How do you think you’re going to build trust in the students and their parents and the community unless you do talk?”
If you need help:
The Crisis Center of Tampa Bay offers services to those who have experienced unwanted sexual contact. You can access sexual assault services 24/7 by calling 211 or visiting www.crisiscenter.com. If you are experiencing a medical emergency, call 911.
The ACLU offers a fact sheet to help students understand their Title IX rights, which you can access here.
Know Your Title IX offers resources to help students understand their rights under Title IX, which you can access here.
The U.S. Department of Education enforces Title IX. Complaints with that agency may be filed here.