Staged image to demonstrate sexual harassment and sexual assault. (Charlotte Spears)
Staged image to demonstrate sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Charlotte Spears

Words Unspoken: Sexual misconduct stories brought to light

December 18, 2018

When then freshman *Amy found herself running barefoot through the streets at 10 p.m. several months ago, she was forced to grow up too fast.

A few hours earlier, she’d embarked on what she thought would be a reasonably innocent night: a first date with an older boy she knew from school.

But according to her, that night took a turn for the worse.

“I got this gut feeling that something wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to be a flake or make him feel bad,” *Amy said.

Soon, that gut feeling would prove true. Sitting on a couch, her date put on a movie and started to kiss her. When she resisted, he held her down. After a period of paralyzing fear, she found a way to leave.

It wasn’t the last time she would experience harassment and assault from boys at her school. In two other occurrences, after resisting sexual and romantic advances, boys would guilt her or call her derogatory names.

Her story is not a unique one. Like Amy, other Grady students have experienced sexual harassment and assault.

One student, *Ellen, experienced both. When she began dating a boy as a freshman, she was called out by his friends in passing, who seemed to mock her.

“If I was walking home from school, they would be out of their car and yell his name very loudly at me and have very gross gestures,” Ellen said.

She had a few frightening encounters with this boy, which included consuming a cannabis edible at a school football game without her knowledge and being touched in ways she felt were uncomfortable.

Other girls have experienced name calling and groping, both on and off campus, and many find themselves in a strange gray area, a sort of limbo, where they are unsure of how to react. Amy remembers being told by a friend’s mother that “if you say no, he can’t ever put his hands on you,” but she hadn’t said no, and neither had Ellen, at least at first.

“I just stayed silent because I was so scared that something worse would happen to me,” Amy said.

As outlined in Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Georgia Department of Education law and the Atlanta Public Schools student handbook, schools have a responsibility to their students when it comes to cases of sexual harassment and assault.

At Grady, there is reason to wonder if that responsibility is executed. Speaking to victims and administration members, therein existed confusion and contradiction.

*Names have been changed to protect identities of students personally affected by this issue.

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Reporting sexual harassment and assault

Illustration by Ellie Werthman

The reporting of sexual misconduct for victims is no clear system of who to report to and what is legitimate to report.

Reporting sexual harassment and assault

According to public records attained through APS, there was one reported incident of sexual misconduct at Grady, in this case sexual battery, within the past three school years. However, multiple students shared personal accounts of sexual harassment and assault that occurred during that period, suggesting a discrepancy between the number of incidents that take place and those that are reported.

Many students are unaware of the steps they should take to report an incident of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

“I was honestly thinking … ‘Who do we go to? Where do we go?’” said junior Evelyn Robertson, a victim of sexual battery who was groped while walking to class. “Luckily Mr. Howard was still outside. I would’ve probably gone to the Office of Student Affairs or the Counselor’s Office, but I think it would be good to tell students ‘Hey if this ever happens to you, this is where you should go.”

Robertson was satisfied with how her situation was handled. Assistant principal Rodney Howard pulled up camera footage. It was too blurry to make out any faces, so he told Robertson to come to him if she ever recognized the perpetrator in the hall.  

But still, there is a sentiment that the reporting process is unclear.

Principal Dr. Betsy Bockman said that if a Grady staff member knows about an instance of sexual harassment or assault, it is their responsibility to report it to an administrator, a fact also outlined in Georgia Department of Education law. They should record as much information about the situation as possible, including, for instance, details of what happened, the time, present witnesses and the name of the alleged perpetrator.

However, after the Southerner talked to multiple administrators and faculty members, it was difficult to pinpoint a clear chain of command. The counselors, to whom some students made reports, declined comment, despite the fact that an administrator referred them as responsible for handling accounts of harassment and assault.

The school resource officer and social worker also have responsibilities in dealing with incidents. However, while one of the school resource officers said he hadn’t received any reports in the last three years, the social worker, who also works at Springdale Park Elementary, said she had received three.

“Every situation is different, but it is our responsibility to investigate an allegation or a claim,” Dr. Bockman said. “I’m not sure why people would pass that on because it is our [responsibility] to investigate sexual harassment and assault.”

When Ellen was harassed on campus by the friends of the boy she was dating, she went to her counselor. After being told she could do nothing if she didn’t want to press charges, she received no further help and did not feel inclined to go back after later encountering more harassment.

Amy was told the same thing. Since her experience occurred off campus, the school could do even less. However, according to Dr. Bockman, past instances of off campus assault and harassment have resulted in students receiving emotional support and even being separated from each other in class.

“If the victim reports that to us, we can refer the student for outside counseling,” Dr. Bockman said. “We have an organization, Pathways, that comes to school. We can do that. Our counselors can provide support as well, work with the parents to find support.”

However, since Amy did not receive such help, she also neglected to return to her counselor for later incidents.

“I was left feeling angry, I guess, sort of just that feeling that you get of why is something so unfair, but you know you can’t change that,” Amy said.

Amy is not alone in her frustration. Another student, *Maria, brought evidence to the administration about sexual harassment occurring against her during her freshman year through text messages and screenshots from a then-senior boy. The text messages were meant to objectify Maria in a sexual nature, something she had not consented to and was not comfortable with.

“They wouldn’t even address [the messages] as sexual harassment,” Maria said. “Even despite what I had told them about events that had gone on throughout the school.”

Despite the confusion regarding the school’s handling of instances of sexual harassment or sexual assault, the process is outlined in the Atlanta School Board Policy Manual in code JCAC. According to Georgia State Law, schools and other places of education and care are required to report incidents no later than 24 hours “from the time there is reasonable cause to believe that suspected abuse has occurred.”

Failure to report timely classifies as a misdemeanor. If a student reports harassment or assault, the faculty member who receives the complaint must immediately notify an assistant principal or the principal, and an investigation must be conducted for all allegations brought to their attention.

Depending on what the investigation yields, it is then up to the administrators to use the levels of discipline established in the APS handbook as a guideline to decide what disciplinary actions will be taken. Since these incidents tend to differ case by case, it is ultimately up to the administrator’s discretion.

These disciplinary actions range in severity and include local interventions, in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension and the most extreme measure, reassignment to another school. If the case is deemed too serious for the school’s administration, it is passed on to the Office of Internal Resolution for a more in-depth investigation.

While the school only has jurisdiction over what happens on school property or during school-sponsored events, students often bring their personal lives to school, which creates a gray area.

“The only jurisdiction the school would have would be something that happens on the weekend if it is a major felony that has taken place or a student has been arrested or charged with a felony, or if it is an instance of cyberbullying,” said Dr. Shannon Hervey, APS Coordinator of Student Discipline. “Other than these things, if a student is sexually harassed by another student on the weekend, and is at a park or random party, then their administrator could not discipline that student for that.”

While Title IX and state education policy have specific laws that apply to sexual harassment, they also protect students from discrimination and promote their well-being. Off campus incidents can hinder students’ ability to learn if they feel uncomfortable at school, raising the question of how limited the school’s power should be. An exception has already been made for cyberbullying, which the school has jurisdiction over despite occurring off campus.

According to health education consultant Justine Fonte, sexual harassment and assault that occurs out of school can have long term effects on students, and therefore schools should play a role in addressing these incidents.

“Because so much of social life and school life are almost synonymous in terms of networks, I think it’s important that you are addressing the issues that are happening throughout one’s day,” Fonte said.

Victims of sexual harassment sometimes feel that the severity of what happened to them doesn’t warrant administrative action, so they don’t come forward. A sophomore, *Sarah, has had classmates whistle and make inappropriate comments toward her in the halls. While this irritates her, she feels it doesn’t warrant reporting.

“I feel like not much would happen with that because it’s not considered extreme … so it’s just not worth it,” Sarah said.

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Prevalence of the problem and solutions

Charlotte Spears

Staged photo to demonstrate sexual harassment and sexual assault

Prevalence of the problem and solutions

According to the Associated Press, roughly 17,000 reports of sexual assault were made by K12 students in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015, indicating a widespread problem at schools across the country. And according to students, Grady is no exception.

A survey of 122 students conducted by the Southerner found that around 55 percent of surveyed students think sexual harassment is a problem at school. Another 24 percent think it may be a problem.

“Sexual harassment definitely happens at Grady and it’s become normalized,” sophomore Elliot Yood said.

Furthermore, over 13 percent of respondents say that they have been sexually harassed by a student or employee.

“I’d say it is a fairly common occurrence, especially among girls here,” Sarah said. “Just being harassed, people not leaving them alone. Sometimes guys will come up and touch girls and it bothers them.”

Sixty seven percent of respondents say that sexual assault is or might be a problem at school. Three claimed to have been sexually assaulted by a student or employee.

Incidents of harassment and assault large and small take place within the school’s community. With the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault present, what can be done to prevent these incidents?

While there is not always a clear way to avoid sexual harassment and assault, there are a variety of measures that can be taken to combat the problem.

One approach would be to better educate students on sexual harassment and assault and the process for reporting such incidents. According to Dr. Bockman, this is one route the school is considering.

“We could talk it about in advisory. We could have more posters or flyers, especially in the restrooms, to talk about that. We could have a speaker,” Dr. Bockman said. “We could really try to talk about it more. Definitely about what it is and what the process is for reporting.”

Sarah agrees. A victim of sexual harassment, she says better educating students on the topic of sexual assault could prevent others from having to experience what she did.

“I think that the sooner you educate someone on what sexual assault means, and what the punishment for it is, the less it will happen,” Sarah said.

In addition to educating students, Maria believes the administration should also take more steps to prevent and handle these instances. She doesn’t think it’s enough to simply recognize the victim, but that there needs to be a clearer system in place to properly deal with these incidents.

“I don’t think that this is [the administration’s] intent at all, but they are just very careless with how they treat situations,” Maria said. “They kind of expect everything to be fixed and better just by talking to [victims], but it isn’t how it is. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can talk to anyone about this, and they’ll tell me that it’s wrong, but what I wanted y’all to do is to fix it and to solve it.’”

Robertson believes that one way to improve Grady’s system would be to install more, high-quality cameras around campus. While her assault was caught on tape, the video quality was so poor that it was impossible to identify the perpetrator.

“I was so frustrated because not only was there not a camera right where it happened, but the quality of the camera footage where there were cameras was so poor that you couldn’t see faces,” Robertson said.

Even with solutions to prevent and handle sexual harassment and assault, the emotional aftermath is still fully present. This is true for Ellen, who has tried to put her trauma in the past, but it’s something she lives with every day.

“I sometimes still do feel like maybe I was doing something wrong, even though I can’t change what happened, but I think I maybe could have prevented it,” Ellen said. “And it’s in the past. I can’t do anything about it and so I have to live with it and I have to … not let it happen again, like standing up for myself.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities of students personally affected by this issue.

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About the Writers
Photo of Royce Mann
Royce Mann, Writer

Royce is a Senior in his second year at Grady. He is a member of the Grady Governance Team and is the President of Amnesty International Club.

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Dana Richie, Managing Editor of Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment

Dana is a junior who loves using her voice to tell other people's stories as well as share her own views. She really enjoys writing for the Southerner...

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Lanier Pickren, Comment Associate Managing Editor

This is Lanier's second year on staff with the Southerner. In addition to writing for the Southerner, Lanier is editor of Latin club, and is involved with...

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Katherine Esterl, Co-Editor in Chief

Katherine Esterl is a senior. She spends her time rehearsing plays, building houses and watching Frasier.

 

Contact

kesterl@thesoutherneronline.com

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