Student Voices Drive Change

by Kathryn LaLonde

Kathryn LaLonde is a high school senior who serves on the youth advisory board of  Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. Her advocacy prompted the creation of the guide Investigating What Happens When a Student Reports Sexual Harassment.

 

I am a high school senior from Montgomery County, MD, and a fierce advocate for social justice and progressive change. I have spent the past year working with peers from my school district, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), to reform regulations on sexual misconduct.

Last summer, more than 350 students from MCPS spoke out on social media about how administrators and school staff had failed them in curriculum education and training on sexual misconduct and improperly handled their reports of sexual harassment, assault, and abuse. I had been furious for years in my district’s handling of my own case and had tried to work with school administrators to introduce some sort of reform to the system but saw little progress.

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It is hard for a district to ignore a problem when over 350 students speak out against something, but it felt like that’s what MCPS did. Although they claimed they were investigating several of the social media posts, there were no promises for policy or cultural change. In an email from Superintendent Jack Smith on July 1, 2020, to all MCPS students and families, Smith wrote that MCPS had spent the last five years taking “significant action to strengthen abuse prevention efforts, enhance reporting protocols, and encourage greater cultural competency.”

Despite concern from a large group of students regarding the current culture and education on sexual misconduct, MCPS, with approximately 160,564 students, made no promise to reform the regulations on sexual misconduct reporting, or improve training and curriculum. When we returned to virtual school in the fall, the district introduced an optional “Culture of Respect” training which was an online module focused on preventing all forms of bullying, harassment, and intimidation. Many students felt that this training was nowhere near close to the reform our district needed.

Building reform

As a passionate activist for change, I knew that I needed to try again to build reform. Two of my peers and I decided to create an initiative dedicated to reforming different areas within our county. These areas included the regulation and system for reporting sexual misconduct, student and teacher training, and implementation of electronic resources for students who are survivors of sexual misconduct.

We worked with the county-wide regional student government association to send a sign-up form to every middle and high school to ensure our initiative was representative of students across the county. Once we had significant interest in the initiative, my peers and I created four county-wide student task forces made up of around 40 students.

I led the task force on reforming the system for reporting sexual misconduct. The current regulation was written in the late 1990s and hadn’t been updated since 2017. We wanted to change several aspects of the regulation but first and foremost, we wanted to make it as student-friendly as possible.

Although the original regulation states that students can report an incident of sexual misconduct to any staff member, it does not take into account the struggles a survivor might have speaking to a school staff member about what happened to them. Our biggest change was implementing an anonymous option for reporting sexual misconduct. This would allow students to feel more comfortable coming forward, without being criticized by school employees or judged by their peers.

We also updated all of the definitions listed on the regulation, added some new words such as consent, and made the language gender-neutral to ensure it was informed by 21st-century practices. We also added a new section ensuring students would not have to attend class with their perpetrators if they had reported them. In addition to these changes, we wrote a provision that states students who violate the regulation can be suspended or removed from extracurricular activities or leadership positions within the school community.

Fortunately, our initiative takes place in a district that welcomes criticism and student input, so we were able to work with members of the Board of Education and other adult activists to push county officials like the Title IX Coordinator to implement the reform we had spent months working on. Although we have not yet put these new regulations into action owing to the time it takes, we have received attention at the state level, and will soon be working to create a state-wide bill that encompasses much of the reform we have done in our own county.

Reflecting and moving forward

Commonly, people relate sexual assault and harassment to a problem of the workplace or see sexual misconduct as issues college students will face, but according to the Rape, Assault, and Incest National Network (RAINN), people ages 12-34 are at the highest risk for rape and sexual assault, demonstrating that it is pervasive among middle and high school students.

Despite this, we have seen a massive cultural shift over the past few years since the rise of the #MeToo movement and Hollywood’s #TimesUp movement. It is becoming much more acceptable, especially for young people, to talk openly about issues surrounding sexual harassment, assault, or abuse, and to work to find solutions. Although it’s frustrating that it takes an uprising like #MeToo or #TimesUp for people to start evaluating what they can do to change, it’s still important that we are moving forward in the right direction.  The #MeTooK12 movement continues to provide a platform for young activists.

Throughout my years being involved in activism and election work, I have often encountered adults who were reluctant to listen to my peers and me. Whether it was because we “lacked experience” or were “too young,” I was always extremely disappointed when adults jumped to these conclusions. By devaluing and ignoring our experience, these adults didn’t know that they were missing valuable information that could help them make a positive impact.

Whether it has been the Civil Rights Movement or the current Climate Movement, young people, throughout history, have often been the driving force for progress. Although we may not have the academic degree or years of experience working in an office, we are almost always directly impacted by what we want to change, and that gives us sufficient credibility and experience.

I encourage all students to get involved. Policy work is not for everyone, but there are so many ways to organize. Simply writing an opinion piece in a local newspaper or speaking out in class when peers or teachers make inappropriate remarks about sexual misconduct can make a difference. We don’t all have to write a bill for our state legislature, but we all have a responsibility to speak up in some capacity. To my fellow students, sexual misconduct will not go away if even one of us stays silent. Our passion and fearlessness can make us a powerful force. Through my work, I know that when students band together, we can create real, concrete change.

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