Fiona Murphy, Editor-in-Chief
January 24, 2020
Students experience sexual harassment on school campuses. It’s not news. Yet, the vast majority of harassment goes unseen and unheard. One of the most common failings of the school system is underreporting. Students simply do not report their experiences. In a 2011 by study of sexual harassment in grades 7-12, 48% of students said they had been harassed, but only 9% of students reported the incidents to a teacher. Our district is no different.
Last semester, a district teacher was investigated for sexual harassment. A letter from the district to Pepperbox denying access to personnel records confirmed the investigation and offered a few additional details about the investigation. After a “thorough” investigation, the district said the complaints were “ultimately not found to be of a substantial nature,” and no disciplinary actions were taken. The district maintained they “addressed what needed to be addressed” and had “faith” in the teacher’s ability to do their job.
A Northern Humboldt alumnus spoke anonymously to Pepperbox regarding a separate allegation of an incident with this teacher. The alumnus believes they were harassed by the teacher their freshman year. They didn’t report the alleged harassment because “[the teacher had] a lot of authoritative power over me and other students,” they explained.
Even though the alumnus said the event caused them extreme distress, they feared they would not be believed by administration, so they stayed in the class for the rest of the year. They said they spent each school day in an environment in which they did not feel safe or respected and they felt powerless to change it.
Another student, a senior in the district, whose name is withheld to protect her privacy, despite willingness to go on record, spoke about her experience in an interview with Pepperbox. She alleges she was harassed by the same teacher. She claimed the teacher “kind of like grabbed” her breast in class and that it happened more than once. She also claimed “[the teacher would] always find a reason to put [their] hand on my lower back or get unnecessarily close.” Like the alumnus, she did not report. The senior, too, spent the rest of her year in a class in which she did not feel comfortable.
“Every time [the teacher] would come near me I would go on guard. I didn’t want to feel like that for fifty minutes every day,” she said.
She didn’t report for much of the same reasons the alumnus didn’t report.
“I had heard of sketchy stuff like that had happened like that in the past, with the same teacher, and nobody had done anything or really listened, so I just figured it would be the same for me,” she explained.
The senior said it would be easier for students to report if there was someone on campus students could talk to that wasn’t “just a teacher,” someone whose job it was to help students with these sort of allegations.
There is a person who is trained to handle these situations. Title IX coordinator Melanie Susavilla works out of the district office and said she can be reached by phone or email. However, neither alleged victim knew who she was.
The conversation about sexual harassment exploded in recent years, kicking off what some call the “Me Too Era.” Women and men are coming forward with their experiences, holding businesses and bosses accountable at some of the highest levels. While some awareness has reached younger people, high schools are still catching up.
The sexual harassment policy for the Nohum district is buried in Article 5, section C, subsection 5, sub-subsection g, under suspension procedures and student insurance.
The contents of the policy are incredibly important to a high school student body. Much of the world remains blurry on what consitutes “sexual harassment.” Does it have to be physical? Or could it just be verbal? Does it have to happen more than once? Where is the line between joking and harassment? One student Pepperbox spoke to, a junior, was unsure whether what she experienced was sexual harassment or not, and cited that as a reason for not reporting.
The policy contains definitions and examples of what the district considers sexual harassment. But without easy access to the policy or the “appropriate” training for students outlined in the policy, students do not receive answers to those questions.
The policy states that “There will be adequate notification of the policy to include permanent posters in public areas, offices, and hallways.”
There are no posters. There are no accessible pamphlets. At the Arcata campus, there were pamphlets on bullying and complaint procedues, but nothing on sexual harassment. (We were unable to check the McKinleyville campus due to time constraints.)
The pamphlet on complaint procedures does not specifically mention sexual harassment at all. It is more focused on mediation, encouraging students to directly contact the person that is being complained about, but this direction may not be the safest or at all comfortable for harassment victims. Superintendent Roger Macdonald acknowledged that pamphlets are not sufficient. He mentioned that “people don’t look at that,” referring to the pamphlets. But did not elaborate on how they are fixing that.
In the policy, it also states that it “will be published in site handbooks and the District Summer Mailing.” Yet, in the copy of the 2019 summer mailing obtained, there was no copy of the policy. In the “Annual Notice to Parents” there is a section that says the policy should be provided with the annual notification and has a “see attached” notice. No such policy was attached. There is a section stating that there is more information on policies, programs and other topics on the website, but it does not sepcify anuthing on sexual harassment.
The policy requires “appropriate” training for students. What it means by “appropriate” is not defined. On the Arcata High and McKinleyville campuses, health classes supply some information on sexual harassment and assualt. North Coast Rape Crisis visits the class for a few days each year to teach students about gender stereotyping, harassment laws, bystander intervention and more. However, according to Arcata health teacher Tahnia Campbell there is very little education on students’ educational rights when it comes to sexual harassment.
“We do teach them about consent, but there’s not a lot about what their educational rights are,” Campbell explained.
Paula Arrowsmith-Jones, a North Coast Rape Crisis employee, explained that while they cover sexual harassment in some sense, they do not have enough time to go in depth and cover all the other necessary topics. In the past, they provided more in-depth training specifically on sexual harassment, but that has not happened in years. Rape Crisis will be extending the amount of days spent in the health classes. They have also been working with Humboldt State University and some other local high schools on bettering sexual harassment procedures but have not yet worked with this district.
At McKinleyville, there is an “every other year” Safety Day, where rules and expectations regarding interpersonal treatment are addressed. But, according to Principal Nic Collart, they do not specifically address sexual harassment.
When compared to other school districts throughout America, the Northern Humboldt Union is remarkably progressive with its sexual education. There is education on how to avoid sexual assault and harassment, but with students’ lack of awareness and fear of coming forward they are still suffering, despite a very clear board policy.
The lack of follow through on a sexual harassment policy and education of its students is not isolated to the Northern Humboldt Union High School District. Throughout the country, high schools are unprepared to handle such incidents. Whether it’s rooted in lack of training for students and staff, or the policies themselves, studies suggest there is a problem. In the previously mentioned study of sexual harassment in grades 7 to 12, only 12% of students believed their school did a good job addressing harassment.
What’s next? How can the district move forward to create better educated and more protected students? Sexual harassment exists. The students need to learn how to spot it, stop it, and how to report it. Macdonald said that next year, all employees, not just spervisory ones, will recieves sexual harassment training. First steps have been taken.
As the nation reckons with its past, Hollywood is being forced to change its ways, and some politicians are being held to a higher standard. Schools can do the same. Our schools can do the same.