Students demand we take action to address sexual assault and harassment

Student leaders at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (RASOTA) conducted a sit-in to draw attention to their demand for changes in the way the school responds to reports of sexual harassment and assault.

This past Tuesday, students at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (RASOTA) held a sit-in protest. I visited to listen to the legitimate concerns of young people at the school who are demanding changes in the ways SFUSD schools address sexual harassment and assault. There are students who have experienced trauma and deserve a better response than what they have been getting.

This is not new.

I have been following this issue for several years since it was originally brought to my attention by my children when they entered middle school and more recently by Lowell and RASOTA students during the summer of 2020. That’s why Tuesday Lowell students also did a walkout in solidarity.

Students have consistently said that policies addressing sexual harassment and assault are inadequate in making students feel safe. In some cases, students said the ways staff respond has even caused trauma.

I met with Lowell student leaders in the summer of 2020 to address these issues. We planned to introduce a resolution that fall. Unfortunately, the work was cut short when district priorities shifted to reopening schools.

But, as we know, these issues don’t just go away because we aren’t talking about them.

On a national level, Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault in high school but made it onto the Supreme Court. Next week he will be considering a case that involves abortion. This shows the laws need examining.

Society should be looking at this complicated and sensitive issue. We should be prepared to have the difficult conversations necessary to keep our children safe now and in the future.

We are being called upon to take action.

In an effort to uplift the student voice, I’m sharing some of what I heard and what I’m doing about it.

An Important Disclaimer: I have made it clear to all folks involved: students, staff, and district leadership, it is NOT my role as a school board commissioner to investigate individual complaints or manage staff addressing this. If individual SFUSD students or families are or have experienced sexual assault or harassment in SFUSD schools, it is important they report it immediately to the school Title IX coordinator, to the district Equity Office.

Or, they may report it using this online SFUSD Title IX Sexual Harassment Formal Complaint Form.

For emotional support, folx can call San Francisco Women Against Rape’s (SFWAR) 24-hour Crisis hotline: (415) 647-RAPE. (Students should be advised this is not the same as reporting. This line is confidential, and folx who answer phones are not mandated reporters.)

What I heard from students:

This is a district-wide concern I have heard over the years. I have requested the district address this issue for over four years. Since I joined the Board, I have specifically advocated for the district to post information on student rights (SFUSD Title IX rights are posted on this webpage.) RASOTA student leaders are now using this information to advocate. Nonetheless, it should be posted in schools and made more available to students.

Students can’t report harassment or abuse if they don’t know how to identify it. Students have consistently requested more education on sexual assault and harassment and at earlier grade levels. (For the record, I have also been asking for this since my kids were in middle school as well.)

Students want more support in reporting incidents; having to write up their own incidents is retraumatizing. So is encouraging (or forcing) survivors to participate in restorative practices with their alleged harassers or abusers.

Because of the confidential legal nature of this issue, it makes it hard for survivors to track what happens once they make a complaint. This issue will be difficult to address because of the confidential and legal nature of these types of complaints. And, let’s face it, reporting sexual harassment or any other type of harassment has never been structured to support survivors. The whole legal reporting system is flawed and puts the burden on those who have been harmed.

Nonetheless, here is the district policy. Here is the administrative regulation explaining how the district says this policy is being implemented.

Sexual harassment and assault don’t just happen to folx who identify as girls. Perpetrators are not just folx who identify as boys. BIPOC, immigrant, trans/non-binary, and disabled survivors’ voices are often erased from these conversations — their voice should be centered. Survivors can experience sexual abuse and at the same time perpetrate racial, transphobic, or other abuse.

One serious issue that I must address is the way that some students drew attention to their concerns by posting the names of peers who had allegedly harmed them. Several students told me posting the lists was necessary to make them feel safe. They say these actions were a last resort in a system that has failed to protect them. Some of those very same students also expressed concern posting these lists could also cause tremendous harm by shaming or canceling innocent students.

As educators, we are responsible for ensuring a safe learning environment for each and every student. That also includes students who are accused of sexual harassment and assault.

While I appreciate some students’ frustration about the way the system works (or doesn’t) ALL students deserve due process rights, the right to counsel, and privacy. This is especially true where allegations of rape are concerned.

Additionally, as children, all students deserve empathy and compassion. (Let’s be honest, shall we? We are talking about human teenagers who sometimes make really big mistakes do really hurtful things and are often replicate behavior they experience with the adults in their lives.)

Ultimately, this week was another reminder that adults need to do much much more than we are currently doing to protect and respond to our children’s needs and concerns.

What I’m doing about it…

I have made a request of Superintendent Matthews that sexual harassment prevention and response be agendized on either the Curriculum and Programs Committee and Policy Committee or during a Regular or Special Board Meeting. I have asked staff to reach out to student leaders to include their questions and concerns.

I am working to connect RASOTA students with Lowell student leaders, who began work on a resolution last year, so they can compare notes and build on progress.

I offered to be a resource and support for students in meeting with the central office Equity Team and Superintendent. I have offered to be a “witness” in tracking conversations and agreements.

I made some suggestions to RASOTA administrators about who they might reach out to in the central office. SFUSD has highly skilled staff who help school communities respond to conflict. Talking about sexual assault is painful and can also potentially cause harm. Site staff will require support as they navigate sensitive topics with the whole school community.

I am also reaching out to community-based organizations with expertise in supporting student trauma and healing. (If you have any resources or recommendations, please send them my way!) While the RASOTA staff investigates individual complaints, it is important to ensure students involved and those who are retraumatized by this community conversation receive necessary support. There are only a few staff trained to do this work.

I will keep listening and checking in with student leaders and staff.

What YOU can do.

Talk about sexual assault and harassment — and not just with folx who identify as girls/women. Anyone can be sexually assaulted or harassed. Talk about how spreading rumors, “canceling” students, or creating an uncomfortable or hostile environment can ALSO be a form of harassment.

Share this list of community resources compiled by RASOTA staff.

If you have students in the district, review this SFUSD guide to Bullying and Harassment Student Info.

Ask your child’s leadership how they are educating students, staff, and families about what sexual harassment is, and how to report it. Ask to review the curriculum. Ask what staff professional development looks like. Ask to see classroom/hallway signage informing students of their rights, help hotlines, and ways to report.

Donate to SFWAR and other organizations that do sexual assault prevention work and survivor support.

Final note:

When I was getting set to publish this piece I was alerted to another incident during an Equity Audit Action Committee meeting this past Wednesday. During introductions of committee members, Reverend Dr. Brown, leader of the SF NAACP was interrupted when someone Zoombombed the meeting.

Participants in the meeting were subjected to viewing pornography and anti-Black hate speech (similar to the “Padlet incident” in a Lowell High School antiracist lesson last spring.) I was not present, but one participant said the Zoombombers showed a video of a Black man having sex from behind (“doggy-style”) with a white woman.

Just typing this makes my stomach churn. Nonetheless, we should not sanitize the traumatizing and visceral experiences that many of our youth are exposed to via cyber harassment.

The fact that this incident happened during a time when I have been reflecting on recent student protests, made me reevaluate the ways our society talks about sexual harassment when racism is involved. I am realizing in many conversations about the Lowell “Padlet” incident, last spring, district conversations erased the fact that the pornography that students were/are subjected to was a form of sexual harassment.

I also want to be clear. Racial and sexual harassment is NOT specific to Lowell, (or RASOTA for that matter.) They are a nationwide problem in schools and society as a whole.

Nonetheless, I am realizing when we (and I’m implicating myself in this as well) discuss these issues we tend to discuss them in categories of sexual or racial harassment, when in fact they can and often do occur at the same time. Instead of either/or, it can be both/and.

mom of twins. education nerd. public school warrior. reformed cat-lady. amateur urbanist. social justice addict. BLERD. & most recently Board of Ed Commissioner