School handles harassment cases unevenly

Annalise Freimarck, Managing Editor

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In her freshman year, senior Monique Lopez said she was stalked and sexually harassed by a male junior student. She said that he constantly followed her, from class to class, and even to the bathroom. Lopez said that he would approach her and say lewd comments.

She said, once, when she was talking with a male friend of hers, he pushed her friend and said, “She’s mine, back off.”

Tired of the harassment, Lopez reported the incidents to her counselor, who then pulled in the student and his parents to reprimand him and tell him to stop. She said that despite being told to stop, the student continued to follow Lopez and harass her. Lopez reported him a second time, but she said he still did not stop. Lopez said the harassment continued around three times a week when she saw him around campus, until he graduated her sophomore year. She blames the repeated incidents on a lack of action from administration.

The constant harassment made Lopez paranoid to see him around campus.

“I was never alone,” she said, as a result of her anxiety. “ I went to the bathroom and one friend would always go. “[I felt] not safe at all.”

Despite Lopez’s alleged harasser graduating her junior year, she says still faced harassment on campus. She said she and her friend were followed in the halls by a group of six boys and were asked repeatedly to take off their shirts and show their nipples.

Lopez said that security cameras caught the incident, but when Lopez reported it to her counselor, she was told by an assistant principal that it was “their (the boys) word against yours.”

With the aim keeping students safe, Branham has spent over a million dollars on wrought iron fencing, and has implemented monthly lockdown drills, to practice how the school would protect its students and faculty in case of an active shooter.

However, along with Lopez, many students report not feeling safe within campus due to harassment from other students.

Within the 2017-18 school year, 33% of freshman, 32% of sophomores, 29% of juniors and 29% of seniors reported to have experienced any kind of harassment, from sexual harassment, to bullying, according to the California Healthy Kids Survey, an anonymous survey that assesses school climate and safety. Also included in the survey, 9% of freshman, 10% of sophomores, 8% of juniors and 10% of seniors reported to have had sexual jokes, comments or gestures made at them four or more times throughout the 2017-18 school year.

Sexual harassment is defined as “making unsolicited and unwelcome written, verbal, physical, and/or visual contact with sexual overtones, or continuing to express sexual interest after being informed that the interest is unwelcome,” according to the Branham student handbook.

In comparison with other forms of harassment, Branham’s sexual harassment policy and definition is vague. Under the bullying section of the handbook, there are lists of examples of what constitutes bullying, and a direct procedure on how bullying should be handled, whether via the Internet or in person.

“We have to follow California’s ed code, it doesn’t matter what the handbook says,” Principal Cheryl Lawton said.

California education code 212.5 defines sexual harassment/assault as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, made by someone from or in the work or educational setting.

However, despite following this definition, among school administrators, there are discrepancies in how allegations of sexual harassment are handled, ranging from how administration flags sexual harassment cases, to students being forced to self-advocate when dealing with harassment.

Inconsistencies in current protocol

As old administrators leave, and new administrators come in, protocol changes for how to handle these kinds of allegations and how they are processed because each person handles things differently. For example, assistant principal Rick Hayashi and Lawton believed that the counselors kept a notebook with names of students that could not be placed in the same class as each other due to sexual harassment, but counselors said there was no notebook and that they keep that information in the school computer system, Aries.

Administrators acknowledge these inconsistencies.

“This is what we’ve done in the past (for protocol), (but) this is what this person does, and it turns out, that’s not what someone else does,” Lawton said.

When a student comes to their counselor or an assistant principal with an allegation, they are told to confront their alleged harasser and ask them to stop if they are comfortable. If they are not, the administration will directly deal with the student. Each allegation is noted in the alleged victim’s file when administration knows of problem, in order to keep track of the allegation and its progression

Hayashi handles these cases and their documentation.

“We say, if it’s not written or documented, then it didn’t happen,” he said.

However, until the allegation is investigated fully within the school and if needed, with the police, it is classified under categories like bullying or disruption/defiance. There is no category for sexual assault or harassment within the system where incidents are filed.

Because of this, until the allegation is investigated, it is difficult for the school to keep track of harassment. In order to see the allegation, they have to look into the details of each file, and under the categories of bullying and disruption/defiance.

In addition to having no category for sexual harassment and assault, victims are often placed within the same classes as their harasser due to limitations of Aries, the program that counselors use to schedule.

Within the program, when a student’s file is opened, there is a section that is labelled flag, and if there is a note that the student cannot be placed in the same class as another, there will be an exclamation mark next to it. However, students still may be placed in the same class as their alleged harasser because counselors input needed classes and Aries randomly assigns their schedule based off of the credits they need.

In order to prevent this from happening, counselors would have to go through each individual case file to see the flag, with a caseload of about 400 students per counselor.

Vince Leeburn, one of four counselors admits that it is difficult to find the flags within the number of students he is allotted due to a large caseload.

“That’s (finding the flags) like finding a needle in a haystack for me,” he said.

Because of this discrepancy, Leeburn urges students who want to avoid being placed in a class with their alleged harasser to come to their counselor each year and let them know. This issue forces victims to become self-advocates each year, which could rehash trauma of an already uncomfortable situation.

Due to these discrepancies, victims of harassment do not feel comfortable within the classroom and on campus, as they often are forced to be in the same room as their harasser or to pass by them on campus. With lapses in tracking and scheduling, it is impossible to know how frequently this happens.

District-wide problem

Issues with sexual harassment tracking are not only a Branham problem, these instances are often underreported on a district level.

Every other year, the district is mandated to report data on multiple subjects including sexual harassment and assault to the Civil Rights Data Collection, an organization that records instances of discrimination and inequity in schools nationwide. The latest data on harassment is from the 2015 school year, with eight reports of disciplinary action for harassment or bullying on the basis of sex and four students that have been reported to have been bullied or harassed on the basis of sex.

District Director of Strategy Jennifer Orlick is in charge of coming to each school in the district every other year, and reporting the data to the Civil Rights Data Collection. When she collects the data, she collects both that year’s data and year before’s, of which the assistant principals are supposed to have kept track of.

“Unfortunately when we’re collecting the data, we’re being asked to get data from last year, so it’s really like a delay,” she said. “Sometimes we’re going back and asking questions about incidents that happened last year, so we have to trust that the people are trained to collect the data.”

This data is significantly lower than what is self-reported on the Healthy Kids Survey.

Changes in California’s education code regarding suspensions could also be impacting these numbers. These legislative changes have inhibited punitive disciplinary action, and emphasized reformative justice, which focuses on healing rifts between students and faculty through conversations that emphasize empathy and community.

California senate passed SB-419 in April that prohibits suspension and expulsion unless the superintendent or the principal determines a student is “disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of supervisors, teachers, administrators, school officials, or other school personnel engaged in the performance of their duties.”

The district has to comply with this new amendment on suspensions and expulsions, and so now every suspension has to pass through the student services director and assistant superintendent, making the process of suspension longer and more arduous.

This new process can cause victims to remain around their harasser, alleged or proven guilty, as they await the decision on the disciplinary action.

Science teacher Juan Fernandez has experienced this delay in action firsthand with one of his students, who had told him that she had been raped and that the alleged perpetrator was still on campus, after she had had a problem with skipping class and not doing her work. She no longer attends Branham.

“I don’t know if that’s the correct answer,” he said. “It was a very shocking confession.”

Plans to address the discrepancies

In order to address these discrepancies within handling sexual harassment and assault, administration plans to begin an online anonymous tip line, where students can report harassment.

“If someone is seeing issues, they could say ‘My friend, or a person I know, is getting harrassed and I was hoping you would act on it,’” Hayashi said.

In addition to an anonymous tip line, because of this Bear Witness investigation, counselors are planning to create a Google document with a list of students that cannot be placed together, in order to circumvent alleged harassers and those who report harassment from being placed in the same classes. Lawton plans to meet with the counselors and assistant principals over summer as well, to further discuss the issues.

“We need to sit down and say, ‘In this situation, here’s the process, the first step and the next steps,’” she said.