From Survivor to Advocate: Demanding Change in the Portland, OR School District

by Annabelle Schwartz

[See Annabelle’s activism online: Oregon LiveKATU-TV, Planned Parenthood video]

My name is Annabelle Schwartz, I am 18 years old, an activist, and a survivor of a peer sexual assault. It took me a long time after my initial experience to realize what had happened to me. I remember the first person I told, my boyfriend at the time, who held me as I cried in his green Toyota.  At that point, I could barely comprehend what I had been through, or how it would shape me into the person I am now. All I knew when I was 15 years old was that finally telling someone was my way of admitting to myself the truth of what had happened.

Almost half a decade later, that truth follows me in everything I do and is present with every person I speak to. There was no ah-ha moment that made me an advocate, but rather a slow shift in me that said, “If I can prevent others from going through what I’ve been through, and give other survivors that power as well, why not do it?”  The same year I admitted aloud what happened to me, I attended my first slutwalk. I was already a vocal feminist through the blood of my mother and her mother, and the combination of that knowledge with the new realization of my identity as a survivor pushed me toward this event. There, by coincidence, I ended up bonding with other girls from my high school, one of whom later connected with me about bringing the energy from the slutwalk to a club at school.

That was the beginning of S.A.F.E.R (Students Active for Ending Rape), a club aimed at combating sexual assault, supporting survivors, and discussing the roots of unhealthy bias in our society. We mostly held meetings to share information and stimulate healthy discussion among our peers.  We also held a summit with leaders from different areas of sexual assault prevention work (professors, therapists, lawyers etc.), and taught about sexual assault at community events. I spent two years with S.A.F.E.R before graduating, and as a senior helped three other high schools in the Portland area create their own S.A.F.E.R. chapters.

During this time, however, my greatest work was advocating to change policy around sexual assault and harassment for the entire Portland public school district.  Because I was an outspoken survivor, many of my younger peers who had recently been sexually assaulted would come to me for guidance. I was humbled by the trust they put in me– to be a shoulder for them to lean on as well as someone that could advocate for them to get the resources they deserved. At one point, three girls came to me, all with stories of being sexually harassed and assaulted by the same boy. Not only had he molested them, but he was also now stalking and intimidating them on school grounds, calling them “bitches” in the hallways and threatening them if they came forward with their stories.

At a certain point it was clear that the girls’ case with the police was not going to continue (an issue warranting an entire blog of its own).  With few options to remove the attacker from their lives, we decided the best choice was to go to our school administration, lay the entire story on the table, and demand that they provide a safe place to learn at school.  But they didn’t seem too interested in helping. They told us their hands were tied. I pointed out that policy stated that the administration could suggest a student attend another high school within the district, but our principal was not interested in doing this out of fear of “ruining the perpetrator’s life.” Because there was no process in place to deal with this situation, the principal said, she couldn’t handle it.

That’s when I decided to go higher up the chain. In November of 2015, I went to the board of Portland public schools and told them the survivors’ stories. I questioned why they didn’t already have a policy in place that directly explained how to handle repercussions from sexual assault and harassment within schools, and demanded that this be changed immediately. At first, the reaction of the board members was strong, they were astonished this was taking place in a school they oversaw, and they wanted to make changes happen, but after a few months, it seemed to be old news to them.

After reaching out again I found that asking one board member to work with me specifically was a better tactic, and was connected with one of the district’s legal counsel, Jeff Fish, to finally craft this policy. I gave him my list of ideas that I hoped would be included, and he came up with a powerfully worded policy that included the appointment of a full-time district Title IX Coordinator to handle these matters.  We jointly presented to the board and Jeff, who was now my champion, worked hard to get the policy implemented before he left PPS for a different job.

Unfortunately, his absence, and my move across the country for the college, meant the process was delayed for as long as the board wanted. I reached out to the board again during my first semester of college and asked for an update on their process and a more speedy implementation of all the provisions they had originally agreed to. We are still waiting as the policy moves through the bureaucracy before it can fully serve the students it is intended to protect.  

Our country has seemingly found our breaking point in covering up the issue of sexual assault The number of survivors coming forward with their stories has birthed the possibility of a new way of regarding sexual assault in our communities. The #MeToo moment is upon us, and we all have to do our part to propel its light into every related area. For me, this means continuing my work with young survivors of sexual assault within school systems nationwide.

That’s why I am proud to support #MeTooK12 and join together with SSAIS to share my work and hopefully inspire others to combat sexual assault in their community’s schools. There are millions of us out there in the world–young people who have been sexually assaulted before they have a college diploma, before they move out of their parents’ home, many before they’ve ever even had a positive sexual experience. And the strategy we use to combat sexual assault for these young people has to be specifically targeted for our demographic. The strategy must be pushed into our schools, where we spend most of our days, and it must recognize that conversations about consent should begin as early as possible.

In my path of advocacy, I have found the greatest detriment are people who believe in the mission but are not willing to speak out and take action. I know that for a long time the topic of sexual assault as been avoided. People are afraid to speak about trauma, maybe because it scares them, or because they think it will scare those around them, but every time someone who isn’t a survivor dares to challenge the silence surrounding the epidemic, another victim has the chance to speak their truth, like I could.

Moving forward, I ask that each and every person reach out to those making waves in their community and ask what they can do to prevent sexual harassment and assault in schools. Support young people who are already survivors. For the #MeToo moment to take full effect, it must combat sexual assault in our schools as much as any other place, and that requires help from the entire community.