Sexual assault stories surface

Students take to social media to share their experiences and discussions arise around district consent education

Near the end of March, many current SHS students, as well as graduates, took to Instagram and social media to share stories of their own experiences with sexual assault and harassment. 

“There have been situations with sexual assault and students have come forward talking about that and sharing their stories,” said Molly Norris, SHS counselor. “Some of the things that I’ve learned as to why students are putting that [on] social media is to bring awareness to the topic and to help other students who may be in similar situations.”

This occurred near the end of Women’s History Month, during which conversations were occurring on a national level. These conversations became localized very quickly as well. 

“I think what inspired this movement of women, or femme presenting people, or really anyone during Women’s Month, was just the outpour of people that have experienced abuse, people that have experienced harassment, assault, any violation of their personal space, and of their bodies,” said Alicia Obiakor, senior. 

Obiakor notes that marginalized populations, specifically Black women, are more likely to face sexual assault.

“When we have these conversations about who is targeted, who is profiled, who is the most discriminated against, I think Black women, Black trans women, Black queer people that are femme presenting, are forgotten in this conversation. So that’s the perspective that I came at it with,” Obiakor said.

Ardnas Oglesby, senior, sees this collective coming forward as a way to heal and also show that people will speak out against injustices. 

 “I would describe us getting our souls back before we walk across stage, and for underclassmen I would say they are showing they aren’t afraid for the rest of years of high school… [of] speaking out about problems that need to be addressed,” Oglesby said in an email.

Obiakor feels that there wasn’t a single specific moment that started the chain of people sharing their stories, but that as more people shared, others felt more comfortable.

“The more stories that people shared, the more people felt compelled to share their own story, which is a really hard, vulnerable thing to do,” Obiakor said. “Even people that were not yet in a position to share their stories still felt really inspired by those who were sharing their stories.”

Obiakor posted a seven minute IGTV video, titled “survivors of abuse/trauma and healing.” This video was shared by many other students as well as graduates. 

“I made a video about healing collectively and how we better create community and cultivate that type of space for people to be vulnerable enough to share such traumatic experiences, and also receive support as a result,” Obiakor said. 

Oglesby feels that this video was a catalyst in getting other people to share their stories. 

“Alicia coming out with her own story on social media (Instagram) on March 20th [led] other girls to come out, including those who have already graduated,” Oglesby said. 

The more stories that people shared, the more people felt compelled to share their own story,

— Alicia Obiakor, senior

In response to learning about these posts, some of which were forwarded to them, the administration sent out a letter to parents and guardians on March 24 stating that there were social media posts going around in the community, but not by current students.

“We have learned about some social media activity occurring this past weekend in which former SHS graduates have posted testimonials regarding sexual assault, in some cases involving fellow former SHS graduates, and naming the individuals involved,” the letter said. 

However, after learning that those speaking out on Instagram included current students as well, the counselors reached out individually to those whose posts had been forwarded to them, as well as to students who they knew had a relevant history to this. 

An April 6 email titled “School Board Updates and Meeting Reminders” included a note emphasizing that consent is covered at the high school and a link to the same letter. There was nothing acknowledging that current students were coming forward as well. 

“We wanted to make sure we got that out to parents, let parents kind of know what was going on,” said Joe Patek, assistant principal. “We also wanted to make sure we talked to the counselors, the counselors have been checking in on a lot of different students.” 

“We have followed up with students we’ve learned specific names [of] that either have posted something or in conversations with students who may be struggling or hurting,” Norris said, “As counselors, we have connected with those individuals.”

Obiakor feels that there isn’t enough being done to address the problem, both when students were sharing stories, and after. 

“I think there’s a lot of minimal effort, bare minimum, all the time. It doesn’t create this space of community that we’re actually talking about… We haven’t continued the conversation, we haven’t had any lessons about it, we haven’t talked about it in class.”

With conversation of sexual assault, there have been discussions about the quantity and quality of consent education throughout the district. Right now, students are only required to learn about consent one time before high school: in sixth grade. 

“At the sixth grade level at both of our elementary schools… students learn about consent and what the definition of consent is, students have an opportunity to talk through and to learn about what it means to give sexual consent and then also consensual sex as it is defined within state statue is also shared with our students,” said Sam Coleman, district director of curriculum and instruction.

According to Coleman, there is no obligation that any type of consent education is taught at the intermediate school. 

“It could be possible that teachers at the intermediate school would share information and topics in their curriculum around consent around healthy relationships and around sexual health and reproductive health… I just know that it’s not required,” Coleman said.

We’re looking right now at a couple different sets of lesson plans and curriculum that has been updated this year,

— Tacara Lovings, PE teacher

In high school, all students are required to take Integrated Health, usually during freshman year. The current freshman health class textbook was published a decade ago, in 2011. Being so old, there are some concerns that this is outdated.

Tacara Lovings, PE teacher, says that while they are not able to get a new textbook for this year or next year, the PE teachers are looking at outside curriculums to utilize. 

“We’re looking right now at a couple different sets of lesson plans and curriculum has been updated this year… curriculum has come into focus right now to make sure that we have the most updated lesson plans, vocabulary terminology and key ideas before the end of the school year,” Lovings said. 

The only other time students would learn about consent as part of required curriculum in a health class is in Lifetime Wellness, a junior-level course that students are allowed to exempt if they have three seasons of a school sport. 

“I wish that wasn’t the case [that so many students exempted] because there are so many important topics covered in that class,” Norris said. “However, I think high school is probably too late to start talking about it.”

Lovings agrees that there should be an earlier start to talking about consent, but says that learning about consent at this later point in K12 education allows opportunity for new age-appropriate context.  

“It doesn’t necessarily make sense for a sixth grader to talk about workplace harassment or something, but that makes more sense to a 17-year-old. So it isn’t late, but it is late if it’s the only place that that conversation happens.”

The administration shares the consensus that there needs to be more education throughout the district.

“The idea is you don’t want to hodgepodge pieces here and there, you want it kinda developing early on in the elementary schools and extending throughout high school,” Patek said, “So in my mind that is one of those things that is going to be revisited and relooked at is what is that systemic approach to consent.” 

Right now, there is talk of adding more consent education and opportunities for students, but it has not moved past a discussion phase.

“Some of those discussions have begun within the past months and those discussions will lead the plan for how we address improving culture of consent and information and education around consent both in our curriculum but also in co-curriculum learning activities that might be available to students,” Coleman said.