HomeEditors' PicksFollowing surge of sexual assault and harassment accusations by CHS students on social media, questions about school’s administrative response and protocol arise

Following surge of sexual assault and harassment accusations by CHS students on social media, questions about school’s administrative response and protocol arise

Published March 31, 2021

By EMMA BROWN, CASSIE GORMAN and ALICIA KRUEGER

On March 14, CHS Class of 2020 graduate Itzél Rios-Ellis, shared an Instagram story titled “Trigger Warning – SEXUAL ASSAULT/ABUSE,” and what followed was her personal story of alleged sexual abuse during her sophomore year at Carmel High School, an explanation of why she felt it so important to share and posts encouraging her followers to further share her story or speak up about their own, and many of them did. 

As dozens of past and present CHS students came forth over the following weeks with their own stories of sexual assault and harrasment over social media platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, a movement was sparked, directing the CHS administrative team to reconsider the level of education provided to students and staff, the processes and policy regarding the handling of sexual assault and harrasment cases, and the culture enabling such behavior 

Student Stories of Sexual Assault and Harrasment

In response to Rios-Ellis’ call to action, more than a dozen CHS students, both graduated and currently enrolled, shared experiences of sexual misconduct at the hands of peers. Instagram posts were quickly dispersed via dozens of accounts, reaching more than 1,000 parents, teachers and students. In the following week, former and current CHS students continued to come forward with statements on their exposure to sexual misconduct.

While the majority of students shared details about personal experiences with sexual harassment and/or sexual battery, others explained frustration with what complaintants, persons making a complaint of sexual harassment, percieved as a misscarriage of justice or mishandled investigations by the CHS administration.

“While in class, a boy touched my breasts in a way that was not consensual at all,” shares a current CHS sophomore in an interview with Sandpiper reporters regarding an incident during her freshman year. “It came out of the blue, and I had not talked to him before. I filed a report with a member of the CHS administration. I went in, I talked about it, and they told me they would talk with the guy who did it. Afterwards, they told me that there was basically nothing they could really do.”

Other students have reported cases of sexual misconduct that they also perceive to have been dismissed by administration. A current member of CHS’ junior class claims that during her sophomore year she was constantly harassed by a group of boys in her grade, and she reports speaking to the school administration on multiple occasions about the alleged misconduct in an attempt to put an end to the harassment: “One of the boys fake-tripped and spilled his water all over my white shirt, and they used to make fun of me all the time for not wearing a bra,” said the junior in an interview with The Sandpiper. “They got it on film, and it was very clear that they were intentionally trying to make my shirt see-through because they got very close and were laughing about it.”

The student maintains that she brought video proof of the incident to a CHS administrator, as well as screenshots of Snapchat messages from the alleged perpetrators, ranging from, as she describes, “threatening to gross and sexual” in the following weeks. 

“(The administrator) called the other guys in, all of them, and said, ‘If you keep doing this, we will have to have a more serious conversation,’ and let them go,” the junior claims. “And they kept doing it. I came three times with new proof showing that they kept doing stuff (verbal harassment and cyberbullying,) thinking that maybe things will change if they saw I had more evidence. And every single time they called the boys in and said the same message, with no consequences.”

Similarly, two CHS students, now seniors, were allegedly subjected to inappropriate comments made by a substitute teacher while working on a group project in class when they were sophomores. The claim was subsequently brought to an administrator.

“We were doing a project in history and a substitute told us we should wear something sexy like the female news reporters do in order to get a good grade on our final,” recalls one of the CHS seniors in an interview with Sandpiper reporters. “He asked another girl if she thought the comment was sexist. She said, ‘Yes,’ and then he told her to ‘Go cry to your mommy about it.’”

Both students claim they were never notified of any investigation ever occurring. At the time of the incident, the students were working on a group project with two other peers, and they claim to have given administration the names of these two students in hopes they could attest to the misconduct. One of the witnesses says they agreed to share their account of the incident, but were never contacted by administration.

“The sub continued to come to campus even though we had expressed our discomfort with that,” the same senior says. “Our impression was that the school did not care about it, they did not follow-up with us on what they were doing with the substitute. I even had the substitute for one of my classes in junior year, where he mocked students who reported him. Time and time again I went to the administrator to inform them of these things, but they did not seem to be doing anything about it.”

These claims do not stand alone. Since the initial spark of social media discussions on March 14,

other students have come forward on social media and during off-the-record conversations with Sandpiper reporters with allegations of the mishandling of sexual misconduct by the CHS administration.

Administrative Response to Social Media Accusations 

In response to accusations of Carmel High School’s mishandling of these types of reports from students, CHS principal Jon Lyons released a statement to the CHS community March 16  via email recognizing the accusations on social media and explaining the current policy and process followed when a student comes forward with a report of sexual misconduct.

“I wanted to address some concerns that have been raised by current and former students over the past couple of days via Instagram,” wrote Lyons in the email with the subject line “Concerns from Instagram.” “These concerns speak to a culture at Carmel High School of on-going and pervasive sexual harassment of our female students … Throughout these postings is the underlying belief that the school, particularly me, have turned a blind eye to this culture and in some ways have promoted it. Under no circumstances is the harassment of any student at CHS tolerated.”

Lyons went on to describe the typical protocol the administration follows when a student experiences sexual harassment and/or assault, as well as the educational resources offered through the ninth grade health program. He indicated that he believes CHS is still a community and ended with a declaration that CHS students are welcome to partake in conversations about critical issues and that his door is open for anyone who wants to talk.

After Lyons released his statement, several current CHS students took to Instagram once more, this time expressing frustration with the contents of the email.

“The entire email was very defensive and unapologetic,” says CHS senior Lauren Pritchard, who has been outspoken on social media about her discontent with the response. “He danced around the issue, mainly talking about programs and future conversations.”

Later, in an interview with Sandpiper reporters, the principal explained that his email was unable to articulate the empathy he feels towards students that have experienced sexual misconduct.

“It breaks my heart,” Lyons says. “You never want to hear your students are in pain. You never want to hear that students are experiencing anything less than a positive experience on campus.”

Similarly, assistant principals Debbi Puente and Craig Tuana have expressed their sympathy toward those who have experienced sexual misconduct.

“I think it’s important to know that I thought, at the time, I was doing everything I could for the girls, given the parameters with which I have to work,” Puente says. “Those parameters are just not enough, and its really made me reflect a ton.”

Lyons says that in the future the CHS administration will work harder to make sure that incidents are investigated to the fullest extent possible.

“We need to be better at our process, and things have slipped through the cracks, no doubt,” the CHS principal adds. “If we’ve missed something, we need to go back and do that work.”

CHS’ Sexual Assault and Harrasment Investigation Policy

When a student comes forward to the CHS administration, there is first a conversation regarding what steps the complainant will take. According to California Ed Code Title IX, if a report of sexual assault or harrasment comes to the attention of school administration, it must be reported to the Title IX coordinator — Paul Behan for CUSD — and an investigation must occur.

If a conversation happens between a student and a counselor, such as CHS support counselor Lauren Capano, in which sexual assault or harrasment is discussed, the conversation can remain confidential. This remains true unless the counselor determines the conversation qualifies under the category of “harm to self or others.” In that case, the conversation must be reported to the CHS administration. 

CHS administrators recognize that oftentimes situations regarding sexual assault and harrasment will start between Capano and a student, and ultimately result in the counselor pulling in an administrator to take further steps. Puente notes that if the complainant does not want to seek justice or is unwilling to identify their respondent, the person accused of harassing someone, the administration team cannot begin or continue its investigation and looks to provide other support through counseling and parental contact.

If the complainant does want to seek justice, they are asked to make a statement, and parents are immediately notified by assistant principals Puente or Tuana. In years prior, statements have been made in a number of ways, including verbally, but under Principal Lyons, victims have been asked to physically write down what has happened to them. From there, the investigation begins. 

“In an investigation, you are going to talk to the victim and the person who allegedly did something,” explains Tuana. “If both stories match up, then you don’t need to do much more investigation. If they don’t, you talk to a few other people or a significant amount. It’s trying to really figure out what happened. Sometimes it takes some time — you have to talk to a lot of people to really get a feel for what happened.”

According to CUSD’s Guidelines for Sexual Harassment Investigation and Followup, both the complainant and the respondent must be clearly notified of an occurring investigation. Tuana notes this should happen in-person or over the phone.

If a respondent is found guilty or there is reasonable suspicion of guilt, the principal, assistant principals and the Title IX coordinator decide upon the proper disciplinary action. If a crime is suspected, the case will also be turned over to law enforcement. 

“Because discipline becomes an issue of privacy, we can’t share what we did or didn’t do,” Puente explains. “We can’t share what happens with the victim in the same way that we can’t with the perpetrator. It’s a privacy law. I think that adds to perceptions that we don’t do or didn’t do anything. This can cause people to feel brushed off because it maybe didn’t go to that discipline level they envisioned.”

Alongside common disciplinary practices like detention, suspension and expulsion, administrators may choose to employ student-to-student agreements called “No-Contact Contracts,” as well as counseling support. No-Contact Contracts can include maps where victims and perpetrators are to walk so they don’t cross paths on campus, clarification of disciplinary action, agreements regarding post-disciplinary action and more.

“If the victim continues to feel uncomfortable or the victim’s wounds have been opened wide again, we re-look at the contract to help ensure that the victim still feels okay and safe,” Puente explains. “If the perpetrator has done all the discipline and no additional situations have arisen, then we can’t go further with that. And that makes sense. But if anything happens, any little thing, and the victim lets us know, we can go to the next level.”

Sex Education at Carmel High School 

As the surge of accusations and awareness flooded Instagram, some eyes turned to the CHS curriculum regarding sexual assault and harassment, and both students and teachers have suggested the need for a curriculum for students in every grade level that confronts this issue more directly.

CHS requires students to complete a one-semester health class, typically taken during a student’s freshman year, with the curriculum covering general units of mental health, physical health, nutrition, alcohol, drugs, tobacco and sex education in compliance with the standards laid out in the California Healthy Youth Act. In this single-semester class, Health teacher Leigh Cambra teaches a six-week long sex ed unit, with over 10 lessons including gender and sexual orientation, healthy relationships, birth control, sexual violence prevention, consent and more. Consent is taught by Cambra during a 90-minute block period, and the topic is reviewed by every guest speaker Cambra brings into the classroom, including Planned Parenthood, Rape Crisis Center and a district attorney who prosecutes sex crimes. 

The health teacher acknowledges that not only is one semester a short period of time to cover everything health-related, but it also doesn’t accommodate all students who are at vastly different times in their lives regarding maturity and the personal relevance of these lessons. Cambra explains that some freshman want and need the sex ed lessons, but others are not at that point in their life yet where these lessons are relevant to them. 

“A lot of (students) aren’t mentally ready for (the lessons,)” Cambra elaborates, “which is why a lot of it doesn’t stick.… Some people have not even thought about it until sophomore year, junior year, senior year, and by then you aren’t like ‘Oh let me think back to what I learned in freshman year health class.’ Why do we only talk about this one time and then just be like, ‘Okay you’re all good now! Let’s go!’”

Cambra believes in the possibility for a district committee to oversee an expansive curriculum that begins with the already standard puberty lesson in fourth grade and builds upon that knowledge in successive years, so that when students graduate from CHS, they have been extensively instructed in these topics over several years. The current obstacle Cambra faces in trying to implement lessons for other grades is time throughout the year to visit classrooms and bring in guest speakers without disrupting other courses’ curriculum. 

As for students at Carmel Middle School, the California Healthy Youth Act made sex ed a requirement for middle schools to teach in 2016, and Cambra suggested a program for seventh and eighth graders to the Carmel Unified District Office shortly after. She now spends 8-12 weeks every year teaching a week-long simplified version of the CHS health curriculum to groups of seventh graders each day during their fifth period. 

While students and teachers voice that the CHS sex education curriculum is too short, some CHS students are also concerned that lessons are lacking substance or are often seen as a joke by students and that some pieces of the sex ed curriculum add fuel to this fire. Junior Emie McAthy explains that most of what she remembers from her health class are the lessons surrounding rape and warning against sending nude pictures, and she feels it didn’t accurately address the root of the issue. 

“We were being shamed for expressing ourselves sexually and attacked for sending explicit pictures even if we were coerced into it,” says McAthy, referencing a lesson taught by district attorneys advising against sending nudes. “It was never addressed that it might be an issue with guys and how they handle themselves.… I learned nothing about how rape happened or how to protect myself, and guys weren’t educated on why it was wrong.”

The last school-wide sexual harassment presentation for CHS was delivered in March 2018 and consisted of a 32-slide presentation made and presented by members of a company called Project IX, with information regarding the definition and examples of sexual harassment, affirmative consent and how to report harassment to administrators. Because this presentation was delivered three years ago, current seniors are the only students who have received a school-wide seminar at CHS. Even then, student opinion largely viewed this presentation as a waste of their time or even detrimental, as some of the content of the presentation sparked jokes about the topic around campus. 

In a Sandpiper article published following the presentation, students opined that the presenter failed to relate to them or that the presentation was full of vague or obvious information regarding what constitutes harassment. One senior at the time said the intention was good, but the delivery was weak, while current senior Kento Husted expressed the presentation became a “meme,” or a joke, on campus.

“Most of the info they told us wasn’t crucial,” says Husted, reflecting on his impression of the presentation three years removed. “With the recent stuff that has been going on it’s been making a lot of guys think whether they’ve made girls uncomfortable on accident or not. (The presentation) didn’t distinguish boundaries or anything, which I think is one issue.… The presentation just made everyone think of the topic as a joke.”

While the current CHS health program meets all state requirements for what must be taught, the recent social media posts and following conversations among students, staff and parents beg the question of whether more should be done. 

“There’s a lot of possibilities out there,” says Cambra, contemplating the potential of an expanded health program, “but it’s a matter of do we want to make the best program possible or are we just ticking boxes?”

Steps Moving Forward

Since the week of March 15, the CHS administration has met a number of times to discuss clarification of and changes to the protocols and programs in place for conducting investigations into reports of sexual harassment and assault, the education of students and how to create a culture where students feel safe coming forward. 

The CHS Leadership class and ASB team met March 16 with both assistant principals and CHS’ school resource officer, Deputy Kevin Gross, to begin this discussion and identify what exactly is wanted from students and community members.

“We were trying to decipher what the expectation of the school is and what does get done when something happens,” explains CHS activities director Aubrey Powers, referring to the discussion regarding school expectations and policies in place for reports of assault or harassment. “We’ve just scratched the surface of finding out that information. We want to figure out what resources we can make known and available to the student body on a wider scope, as opposed to it being limited to, like a pamphlet or something that you would pick up in the office.”

Leadership and ASB had plans to meet with CHS assistant principals again Tuesday, while health teacher Leigh Cambra hosted a meeting for students March 22 to discuss sexual harassment and assault, how to prevent it and what students feel needs improvement specifically at CHS. The meeting was attended by several students as well as some teachers and has turned into a weekly club with weekly meeting information available within the CHS school bulletin. 

“Our culture at Carmel doesn’t explicitly define that this is not who we are,” Lyons says. “We don’t talk about these things enough, and we’d rather not talk about them. We’d rather just say, ‘It’s not my problem,’ but we need to attack it head on. We have be explicit. The culture of Carmel High School is about respect and treating others as equal. We have to address all three of these things — process, education and culture — and that’s the task in front of us. And that’s not something you’re going to fix with one attempt.” 

Outside of CHS staff and the administration, 2018 CHS graduate Kassidy Cosmero distributed a petition now signed by 2,691 community members to change curriculum on sexual misconduct and sex education at CHS, and a separate forum is currently circulating around social media to gauge what exactly the public thinks should change. 

To date, there is no official plan to revise education or policy.

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    I am a parent of a student that falls in the bracket of kids harassed. I’m aware there is always a deputy sheriff on campus at the high school. Is the sheriff at the high school for drug or alcohol issues? Why can’t the sheriff step in and provide guidance to the school? Can kids go to the sheriff since harassment and assault is considered illegal? I know the Rape Crisis Center provides a great deal of support for victims both male and female. Steps are taken quickly for adult victims provide support and safety. Shouldn’t there be more done to protect and provide for our kids? It should not be a simple conversation for an incident like this.

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