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Students are walking out of school to protest districts’ handling of sexual assault allegations

“I see this growing movement as the next generation kind of taking up a stance and saying we’re not going to stand for this,” one victim’s advocate said.
Students at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., comfort one another during a protest Nov. 23 in response to the school's handling of cases of sexual assault.
Students at Interlake High School in Bellevue, Wash., comfort one another during a protest Nov. 23 in response to the school's handling of cases of sexual assault.Megan Farmer / KUOW

Alex Su, 17, a senior at Newport High School in Washington state, went to school officials this year to report that a classmate she had previously dated had physically and verbally abused her. She said in an interview that she reported the physically abusive relationship because she wanted “some form of accountability.”

But Su said she was frustrated by the school’s slow response and lack of action weeks after she came forward. So she began posting her frustrations online.

“It’s been about 5-6 weeks since I told administrators and nothing is being done, they won’t remove him from my classes or hold him accountable for anything,” she wrote in a post shared on her Instagram stories. “I’m not posting about this for sympathy but just because I am angry that even by ‘telling a trusted adult’ nothing has happened and [the Bellevue School District] has not taken any appropriate action. I sent the vice principal pictures of bruises and texts of this boy admitting he hit me multiple times. I’m not sure what else to do at this moment. I don’t feel safe at school.”

Asked about its actions following Su’s allegations, the Bellevue School District said it does not comment on “individual student records for the security and privacy of the student.” 

Su said school officials told her to take down her social media posts or potentially face consequences because the student she accused felt unsafe. 

The response from her classmates, however, was quite different. They flooded her with support and vowed, themselves, to take action against the administration.

Hundreds of students walked out of the school late last month in support of Su and abuse survivors and called for school districts to take accountability to protect their students.

Image: Students protest at Newport High School, in Bellevue, Wash., on Nov 19, 2021.
Students protest at Newport High School in Bellevue, Wash., on Nov. 19.Courtesy Alex Su

Su said she believes so many students joined the protest because “it’s a really big thing that we’re able to relate to, assault, sexual assault, rape, and just like the general feeling of having an administration ignoring us and silencing us.”

“It was a really broad, relatable feeling,” she said

Waves of high school students have rallied, by the dozens and at times by the hundreds, around the country this school year to support sexual abuse victims and protest how their districts handle such allegations.  

In mid-October, more than a hundred students walked out of Denton Guyer High School in Denton, Texas, following a report of a sexual assault on campus. More than 100 students walked out of Mentor High School in Mentor, Ohio, early last month over claims that the school did not take allegations of sexual harassment, racism and bullying seriously. 

About 150 high school students rallied outside a school board meeting in Seattle this month. And this month, hundreds of students from at least eight high schools in San Francisco walked out in protest of the district’s handling of sexual assault complaints.

The protest at Su’s school has been followed by similar walkouts of hundreds of students at surrounding schools.

While student demonstrations and walkouts may not be new, the proliferation of such large protests by students against their teachers, principals, school board leaders and other figures of authority in numerous states this year highlights the desire among young people to make themselves heard on a number of social issues, said Angela Esquivel Hawkins, a Stanford University administrator who also advocates for victims of sexual assault.

“I see this growing movement as the next generation kind of taking up a stance and saying we’re not going to stand for this now, and we certainly won’t stand for it in the future,” she said.

Hawkins said this generation of high school students “increasingly has access to information about broader societal issues that are kind of coming to the fore and being basically taken out from under the rug,” through movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter and the protests for racial equality and against police brutality.

They also have greater access to one another through social media, she said, and to information like their rights under Title IX, the federal law that protects students from sex-based discrimination in federally funded schools. 

Hawkins said the rise in protests could also be related to the students’ unique experience of having lived through 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced them to stay home from school and the murder of George Floyd put a spotlight on injustice and responses to it. 

“I think it just really created this kind of kinetic force that was going to come out one way or another,” she said. “And so I think once they’re back on campus, it’s almost like the level of tolerance is maybe lower and combined with the sense of empowerment to speak out is higher.”

Sereniti Simpson, 17, a junior at Olympic High School in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina, helped organize a student protest and walkout in October after another student was alleged to have been allowed to play on the football team despite having been accused of sexual assault. The protest called for schools to have better “precautions put in place for a safer environment for sexual assault survivors,” she said. 

“I wish there wasn’t a reason I would have to have a protest,” she said. “I wish that these female voices would already be heard to begin with and that they won’t even have to go through this, but because nothing is being done, we as teenagers and we as the youth have to take a stand, because the older generation is doing nothing and kind of just passing it along.”

Nikki Wombwell, a former student in the North Carolina district’s Myers Park High School who says a classmate raped her in the woods near the school when she was 15 in 2014, praised the protest movement.

“I think that’s amazing, especially the current students that are so passionate about this and are working to raise awareness and are coming out to the protests and are doing the work and standing up for this, because when I was in high school, it felt like there was really nobody that cared about these issues,” she said. “So to have all of these people, all of these current students, care is amazing.”

Wombwell is a member of Amplify Survivors, a group advocating for assault survivors in grades K-12, which has helped organize and participate in a number of protests.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Last month, in response to allegations of sexual abuse on multiple campuses, Superintendent Earnest Winston said the district will add more staff members to its Title IX office. 

“Their responsibility, their sole responsibility, will be to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct,” Winston said, according to NBC affiliate WCNC. The district also formed a Title IX task force in August.  

The protests have not always been met with amenable responses from school leaders.

Simpson and several other students were suspended from the volleyball team for one game after the walkout in North Carolina, she said.

“If you speak up, you can get punished for it instead of the issue actually being dealt with,” Simpson said. “But I do think recently more students feel a little bit more confident on speaking up about issues involving sexual assault.”

The district said in a previous statement to a local station that the students were suspended because the walkout, unlike a preceding indoor demonstration, was “not part of the planned protest, and was a safety hazard for students, staff and others in the area.” 

Meanwhile, Su, the Washington student, received an emergency expulsion after the protest. The expulsion functions more like a suspension, and Su has since been allowed to return to school. She is appealing to have the expulsion removed from her permanent record.

Art Jarvis, the district’s interim superintendent, said in a statement last week that there “is no tolerance for sexual assault or sexual harassment in the policies or practices of the Bellevue school system.” 

“Neither is there any room for a mentality that skips essential investigations and findings or neglects due process protection deserved by every person,” he said. “The district will continue to investigate any charges or allegations.”

Su said she has been comforted by the messages of support she continues to receive from other students.

“And the one comment I appreciate the most is ‘I believe you,’ because that’s a really important thing to hear when you share something like this,” she said.

And while the district’s responses have disappointed and frustrated her, Su said, she will continue to support other student protests.

“I think that we need to change things, but I’m not relying on them to change it,” she said. “I’m relying on myself and other kids.”