Calls for investigation into Hillsborough schools’ handling of sexual harassment continue

Members of the public continue to seek a response to a Times investigation in the face of district silence.
People hold signs outside of the Hillsborough County School Board meeting in Tampa on Tuesday. They were there to demand an independent investigation in response to a Tampa Bay Times story.
People hold signs outside of the Hillsborough County School Board meeting in Tampa on Tuesday. They were there to demand an independent investigation in response to a Tampa Bay Times story. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 12, 2022

For two Hillsborough school board meetings in a row, members of the public have begged district leaders to take action in response to a December Tampa Bay Times investigation that detailed how students felt belittled and punished when they sought help to stop sexual harassment.

At Tuesday’s meeting, people again demanded an independent investigation into how complaints were handled at Blake High School in Tampa, and once again they were met with little acknowledgment — other than brief remarks asking speakers to not interpret silence as the district not caring.

“We need change and you guys don’t take us seriously,” Charlee Salmons, a junior who transferred out of Blake High, told the board. “We are young adults about to graduate into this world and we can’t even feel safe with the way that things are happening right now. Please do something soon for us.”

Carol Pierce, who said until now she had never felt compelled to attend a board meeting, asked the board members why they hadn’t put this issue on their agenda after the last meeting, when former student Rufus del Valle testified in tears about his experience and others demanded change.

The Times story focused on Blake High, but three experts on Title IX — the federal law that requires schools to protect students from sexual harassment — told the Times its reporting points to concerns for the district at large.

Since the school board’s last meeting in December, the Times reported another former Blake High student’s account. Former Blake student Erin Melvin, now 21, said she’d reported a boy who told her he could pick her up and force her to have sex if she didn’t agree. She said school officials told her that the way she’d dressed had caused the boy to go after her. That response, Melvin said, was worse than her terrifying experience. She had wanted to address the board herself Tuesday but is away at college.

“The responses that survivors report having received in response to reporting their abuse is reprehensible,” Theresa Prichard, associate director and general counsel for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, told the school board.

Prichard urged the district to launch an investigation and make material changes.

“When schools punish survivors for reporting their abuse it compromises the reporting process and increases the frequency of violence and abuse,” Prichard said. “This isn’t just turning a blind eye, it’s sanctioned sexual assault on our students.”

Some were offended by Superintendent Addison Davis’ remarks at the last meeting that, “We will continue to address and ensure that every one of our learners have a safe environment.”

“This sounds really good — it’s simply false,” said Cathy Erhardt, who quoted the superintendent back to the board. “These kids are not safe.”

She recounted to the board her own child’s experience, which included, as the Times previously reported, that her daughter told school officials a teacher made sexually inappropriate comments, only to have the district deny that any allegations existed. Confronted with the email from Erhardt’s daughter, the district admitted the issue hadn’t been documented, but officials said an investigation had occurred.

At Tuesday’s meeting, activism was somewhat muted by coronavirus protections, which allowed people inside the meeting only to address the board. People sat outside the building, watching the meeting on a glitchy livestream. Del Valle, who organized people coming to the board meeting to call for action, had hoped for conditions that would allow for a supportive audience.

Before the meeting, as people gathered outside with signs, Del Valle got word that Sue Burkett, Hillsborough’s chief of schools, wanted to speak with him. Del Valle told the Times she said she hadn’t been asked to talk to him, but that she wanted to understand what he wanted. He said he reiterated his concerns — an independent investigation, that people who had wronged students be fired, more Title IX awareness. The talk, he said, was brief — cut short by the start of the meeting. He and others went home with nothing to reassure them that the district would do anything.

“They aren’t instilling any confidence back into us,” said Del Valle’s dad, Gregory del Valle. “We’re asking questions and we don’t hear nothing, and so we don’t have anything left to conclude except they don’t care about us.”