NORTH CAROLINA (April 28, 2022)— Students at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham are calling on school leaders to address how they handle sexual assault cases, with campus events and protests every day over the next week. Their campaign started with a silent walkout by about 300 students and faculty members at the elite residential high school Monday. Students also plan a sit down with survivors of sexual assault to share their stories, a Title IX information session and another protest on Bryan Lawn on campus. Students say the school has mishandled sexual assault reports, relies on outdated sexual assault policies and refuses to protect victims on campus. They also criticize the school’s disciplinary process and how they say the school has dealt with student suicide attempts.
“School is a place where you’re supposed to feel safe, especially when you live at school,” senior Lily Lentz said. “When there are people assaulting others on campus and getting away with it, it does not create a safe environment.” Lentz, 17, said some students are hesitant to report a sexual assault because of “horror stories” about accused students not facing any consequences after an investigation. Lentz, who uses they/them pronouns, personally ended up not filing a formal Title IX complaint after talking with a Title IX coordinator who made them feel uncomfortable and lacked empathy, they said.
“People are scared to report to the school and at the same time they’re having to live in fear with their assaulter being on campus,” Lentz said. Living hours away from their parents and feeling like the school isn’t protecting them means they have to protect each other, Lentz said. Students organized the walkout and other events to bring attention to the issues during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. While the students are looking for immediate acknowledgment and an apology, they say they want to work with administrators to change policies that will improve the system for future students.
Students drafted a 17-page letter to outline their grievances and demand changes. It focuses on the school’s process for investigating sexual abuse reports, with students criticizing the Title IX office’s standards for being less stringent than investigations into students accused of violating curfew, alcohol rules or coronavirus safety protocols. The letter also requests improvements to the school’s mental health services and disciplinary process. Their demands include: Hiring a dedicated Title IX coordinator. Editing the student code of conduct to augment Title IX policies. Implementing a hearing board for some disciplinary hearings, as an alternative to officers. Confirming statistics surrounding student mental health and Title IX allegations. Promote continuous Title IX education and provide “sufficient and specific” counseling targeted at survivors of sexual assault. Students collected dozens of anonymous complaints and personal experiences from their peers. The letter says students felt “dismissed, gaslighted, left vulnerable and unprotected, and mistreated by the administration.”
They described being sexually assaulted by classmates and a residence life assistant in dorm rooms and off campus. They explained their hesitance to report assaults because they’re afraid of getting in trouble for drinking or having other students in their rooms. They said they saw little to no consequences for students accused of assault. The school is handling two complaints alleging behavior that triggers the school’s obligations under Title IX, according to communications director Bryan Gilmer. The school hired an outside investigator with Title IX expertise to review the cases, and the school will respond when her investigation is complete. Neither complaint involves employees, Gilmer said. “Sexual assault and harassment have no place on our campus and will not be tolerated,” Gilmer said in an emailed statement. The school’s top priority is to create a safe, secure and positive environment for its high school students, he said. After this week’s walkout, Chancellor Todd Roberts sent an email to parents addressing the issue. He said they are listening to students’ concerns about the handling of sexual assault allegations and about mental health. He also said that the school follows federal rules for Title IX cases.
Lentz and other student leaders met with Roberts and two administrators Wednesday and learned that some of their requests are already in the works to be implemented. Administrators told students that the Title IX coordinator will no longer be in charge of the code of conduct disciplinary process. They also agreed to working with students on Title IX education efforts and making it easier to get in touch with investigators.
CONCERN WITH STUDENT DISCIPLINARY PROCESS
The residential high school for juniors and seniors opened in Durham in 1980, and joined the UNC System in 2007. About 700 students attend the school in Durham. A second campus in Morganton in Western North Carolina will open in the fall. The student code of conduct makes it Level III misconduct for students to have drugs or alcohol, both on and off campus, while under the school’s jurisdiction. Any student charged with doing so faces punishments including probation and dismissal.
But there’s an exception: Students “acting in good faith” won’t face formal punishment “solely” for reporting a sexual violence case that involved drug or alcohol use. The code requires a committee to review repeated amnesty claims from an individual student, and administration reserves the right to make such students complete “educational expectations.” Still, students described fear of punishment as a concern for sexual assault victims. “Admin seemed more concerned about the possibility of alcohol in the room than anyone’s safety,” one student wrote of reporting a sexual assault during which they had been drinking. One student said that they were among a group of students who decided not to report a classmate who flashed them. They worried that student would get them in trouble for violating COVID guidelines, subjecting the whole group to sanctions. Federal law doesn’t dictate how schools handle most complaints about drugs, alcohol or coronavirus protections. For sexual assault, federal Title IX mandates sculpt procedures at every stage of a school response.
HOW NCSSM HANDLES TITLE IX REPORTS
Anyone, including students and parents, can report a sexual assault to the school’s Title IX coordinator or any employee. An employee is expected to report any incident to the Title IX coordinator. According to NCSSM’s policy, the Title IX coordinator reaches out to the alleged victim to give them the opportunity to file a formal complaint and offers measures such as getting a campus escort or changing classes or housing. The coordinator also offers measures to an accused student or employee. Students’ parents can also file a formal Title IX complaint. The school will notify parents and legal guardians of any formal report or allegations of sexual harassment involving their child. The school must investigate reports of sexual assault or harassment against students and employees that happened during school programs or at school locations. The Title IX coordinator and the director of safety can temporarily ban an accused student from campus who they determine is an “immediate threat to the physical health or safety of any student or other individual.” A case can be dismissed for multiple reasons, including if the accused person leaves the school, evidence can’t be gathered or the alleged victim withdraws the complaint.
A SERIES OF CASES SPARKED PROTEST
While students and alumni describe longstanding grievances with NCSSM’s response to sexual allegations, organizers point to a set of three related cases that sparked their protests. One student who contributed to the letter said that a classmate raped her over the summer, but that campus officials told her that they didn’t have jurisdiction to investigate. Since that conversation, two more students reported that the same classmate sexually assaulted them. One student who said she was sexually assaulted said that as she hired a lawyer and prepared for a Title IX hearing, the accused student she reported continued in a campus leadership position. “All I want is to feel safe and I’ve honestly never felt more alone than when I realized my story was just another one swept aside in favor of keeping the peace,” that student wrote.
Protest organizer Cade Smithey said that the repeat nature of the cases brought students to a breaking point.
Source: The Herald Sun wrote the original article.
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