***this article was written by a student in our staff who would like to remain anonymous, please respect their wishes and read on***
On Friday, November 4th, at 9:10 in the morning, I, along with over 100 other AHS students, walked out of second period to protest the school system’s handling of the sexual assault issues that occurred a few days prior. For those of you who are unaware or do not attend Anacortes High School, here is the story: Students wrote posts on social media sharing information about or stories related to a recent case of sexual assault among the student body. The students who posted such content were called into the office and given two options: to delete the posts they made, or to sign a contract saying they had broken the school policy against bullying. The students were told that they could be sued for defamation of character if they did not remove the posts. Many of these students felt that this was an immoral action for the school to take, and so they organized a protest and spread the news amongst the student body. This protest was not about the case of sexual assault, and in fact, the case itself was never mentioned during any speeches. Instead, the protest was about the way that the school administrative system handled the situation.
It was raining the day of the protest. The banners, posters, and flyers that students had made shortly became soggy and began falling apart. Those who thought ahead enough to have brought an umbrella were afforded some shelter. Unfortunately, such a thought had never occurred to me, so by the end of the 40-minute long protest, I was drenched. I made my way from second period out to the overhang near the entrance to Brodniak Hall, where all of the protesters were gathering. The students who had organized the protest had been kind enough to bring snacks and warm beverages for those who wished for them. The protest itself took a while to get going. It was loud. Everyone was talking amongst themselves, not hearing the students attempting to get everyone’s attention using a megaphone. Eventually, however, the chatter quieted, and several students were standing in front of the crowd. These students were ones who had a personal relation to the incident, being some of the people who were asked to remove their posts. They made speeches about the events that had occurred, telling everyone why they believed the school’s actions were wrong.
The protests were based on the First Amendment to the Constitution, which decreed that everyone has a right to freedom of speech. The school district’s actions forcing students to remove the beliefs that they had written about was an infringement upon this basic right of our country. The school does not have the right to tell students what they are permitted to post in their social media, which is unaffiliated with the school. Students have the right to speak out and share their stories without being censored by adults who are uninvolved in the situation. And by making one of the choices given to the students the option to sign a contract saying that they had engaged in a form of bullying, the school district established the fact that in a case of sexual assault, they care more about the welfare of the assaulter than they do about getting justice and closure for the victim. This is a dysfunctional system. In what society do we care more about protecting a rapist than we do about getting justice for the victim?
These were the messages being shared that day.
However, I am attempting to give information about this incident from an objective point of view, and to do that I need to explain both sides of the issue.
Looking at this from a different perspective, we see that the protest was aimed at the entire school district. However, from speaking with a person with a connection to the staff, I have found the possibility that this widespread accusation is unjust. It was not the entire school district that was involved in this. According to this person, there are rules placed on the staff as well keeping them from doing anything, which could account for what was viewed by many as poor handling. In addition, according to this person, the reason that students were able to be told to remove posts was that they were made during class time. This is a logical policy, because no teacher or staff member wants students to be posting on social media instead of paying attention in class. However, it is also true that this seems like a bit of a loophole that enabled staff to have the authority to request the removal of the posts.
Following this train of thought, I interviewed Dr. Duez, the principal of AHS, to hear the side of the issue that the majority of the student body didn’t hear.
What are your feelings on the protest and the events that led up to it?
I support students’ rights to freedom of speech. I’m incredibly sad anytime students don’t feel listened to and supported.
As principal, what was your response to these events?
My response to the events is to listen to students and find ways to support them better. Both Ms. Huggins and I met with students following the protest to hear from them about ways we could support them.
Is there a perspective on the administration’s response that you would like to share?
Ms. Huggins and I care first and foremost about students and their well-being. Due to confidentiality guidelines, we cannot always share everything going on in situations. Ms. Huggins and I take our role as mandatory reporters seriously; whenever sexual assault is reported to us, we report the assault and provide support to the reporting student.
What is your opinion on the communication between the administration and the student body during this situation?
During the protest and after the protest, I think we had good communication with students. Before the protest, I wish we had more open communication with students and provided opportunities to listen openly to student needs.
How well do you think the administration responded to the events leading up to the protest?
I think we could have done a better job communicating with students and listening to their needs.
What do you think can be done differently in regards to communication between administrators and students to prevent miscommunications such as this from occurring in the future?
In the future, we hope to listen to students and provide opportunities for students to ask questions and be heard. I am thankful for the students who shared ideas for how we could better support them. We have hosted workshops from DVSAS, Domestic Violence Support and Sexual Assault group, and we will also have them visit science classrooms. We will also be starting a group for those affected by sexual assault.
All in all, this entire situation seems like a massive miscommunication, casting both students and staff in an undesirable light. It is true that the situation could have been handled differently in order for more clarity between staff and the student body. This was not helped by the speed with which rumors spread. Every time a story is told, it is embellished in some way. That is simply the nature of storytelling. This particular story was passed around so many times it is difficult to know the actual facts. While there were undeniably mistakes made in the handling of this situation, it is also true that the truth of the matter has become obscured due to all of the rumors that have flown about the situation. There is not enough information to be able to cast definite blame anywhere. The only thing I have to say about this, which I had not considered deeply before writing this article, is that you need to hear both sides of a story in order to find the truth. I do not claim to know everything, nor do I claim that one side is correct while the other is incorrect, I am simply explaining the different perspectives. In the future, should a similar situation arise (which I fervently hope it does not), communication will be key.
In regards to the general issue of sexual assault, I interviewed Bryn Meeks, who works at Skagit Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services as their education and prevention coordinator. Ms. Meeks has graciously provided information about what is professionally done in cases of sexual assault and what resources there are to deal with it.
What do you advise people to do if they have been sexually assaulted?
I trust each person to make the choice that is right for them. That may seem like I am avoiding the question, but each one of us is the authority over our own lives and our own wellbeing. I will say, however, that everything is easier when someone has your back and can support you. Perhaps talking to someone you trust could ease the emotional weight of sexual assault. As for whether to go to a hospital, make a police report, seek justice, identify the person, or simply try to quietly heal, you know best.
What services are offered by the SDVSAS to help people who have been assaulted?
We offer Advocacy Based Counseling, which is focused on safety planning and empowerment. We do a lot of non-judgmental listening; we ask what concerns you might have, and we try to tackle those concerns together. Sometimes that involves going to the hospital to support during a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner exam to provide information, talk about your rights, and be supportive. Sometimes we go through protection orders with people and provide support for them in court. Not one person’s experience is the same. Often our role is less tangible; we are just a voice on the phone offering validation and emotional support. One of the things I find most valuable is that we don’t have an agenda around what you choose to do, we support you no matter what.
Do you have advice for people who have been assaulted and are wondering whether their situation “qualifies” them for SDVSAS’s services? Yes, my advice is CALL US! We can listen to your wonders and figure them out together. All the advocates at Skagit DVSAS are kind, welcoming, caring people. The threshold for consent is pretty high, its got to be clear, enthusiastic, ongoing, specific, coherent, and free from big power imbalances to count as consensual and if it’s not consensual its sexual assault. If you feel weird about an experience you had, I would trust that feeling.
How can we best support a person who has been assaulted?
I always encourage big ears and an open heart. There are no words you can say to fix what’s been done, and you can’t save someone from the challenges they face. You can, however, thank them for telling you and trusting you, you could ask questions like “what is your biggest concern?”, “what can I do to support you?”, you can hear them out, and validate them. If we find ourselves judging the circumstances surrounding the assault, it can be helpful to remember that nothing ever excuses someone from jeopardizing another person’s safety and bodily autonomy. It is never the victim’s fault. Ever.
How can we spread knowledge of consent to more diverse and varied audiences?
Someone at the Public Library Healthy Relationships series asked that very question and I have been thinking about it a lot since. I want everyone to practice asking for and giving consent. It is radical, not standard to be proactive about your partner’s wellbeing and pleasure. To reach people who think either it doesn’t apply to them, or that they already know enough, these conversations must be mandatory. It is a community and society-level issue that one out of four female, trans, and gender-non-conforming college-age people have already experienced sexual assault so we must address it with community education.
Have you often seen school protests after cases of assault? Are protests an effective way of increasing awareness of assault?
I have not before seen as many as I am now, but perhaps I am simply more aware of them since I began working at Skagit DVSAS. Sexual assault is fairly common, as I mentioned earlier, and I think that disrupting the status quo is a great way of acknowledging that change is necessary. I encourage you to continue being creative and proactive in trying to improve the institutions we inherit.