Published May 25, 2021
BY EMMA BROWN
It has been two months since dozens of former and current Carmel High School students came forward with their experiences of alleged sexual assault and harassment, primarily at the hands of fellow students and in one case, a substitute teacher, many of them expressing frustration with the high school’s administration for a perceived mishandling of investigations into past allegations. In that time, students have returned to campus for in-person schooling and members of the CHS administration have made efforts to resolve issues of sexual harassment and assault, despite frustration from students concerning a lack of specific plans for change.
Shortly after students returned to campus, members of the school’s administration visited history classes to discuss new policies and define various kinds of misconduct. Students explained that their main qualm with the presentations by administration was a lack of specificity and what they perceived as defensiveness, but despite negative reactions from students, administrators cited the conversations as an important beginning to a larger dialogue,
“Initially, I thought the conversations went well,” says CHS assistant principal Craig Tuana. “But I got some feedback from students, and I don’t think it was what the students wanted or expected. Maybe we should have gone into classes with more specifics. Students also wanted to know if we followed up on information that we received.”
For many students, the presentations demonstrated a disconnect between what administrators believe students need and what the student population actually expects.
“I felt the presentation was impersonal and [the administrator] was more concerned with the school’s reputation than actual changes,” CHS sophomore Scottie Keaton says. “Their defense and repeated clarification claiming how harassment and assault would be treated very differently also rubbed me the wrong way. I agree they deserve different responses, but both should be reprimanded, as not fixing harassment claims will only reinforce the idea that this behavior is okay, only leading to a bigger issue.”
Since the initial posts on social media regarding sexual misconduct, administrators report talking to more than 60 students for ongoing investigations into allegations.
“We followed up on every allegation that we were aware of,” CHS assistant principal Debbi Puente says. “Granted, I can’t say we’re aware of all of them. Then we made parents aware of the fact that there was a post online by your student and that you may want to follow up with them.”
During the time since many allegations were made public, the administration has made changes to long-standing policies surrounding discipline and the course of investigations.
“We’ve been honing in on documentation, really working with the three of us, and then working with the district office,” CHS principal Jon Lyons says. “We’ve been meeting with our legal counsel to talk about reviewing our process, asking, ‘Is this the way it should work from a legal standpoint?’ Officer Kevin Gross is helping us define sexual assault versus sexual harassment in his world and how that may affect our world. In the fall, there’ll be a new component to the student handbook that will lay out the investigative process.”
At CHS, an investigation into sexual misconduct begins with an initial report, and then leads to interviews with the alleged perpetrator, the complainant and potential witnesses. When administrators arrive upon a conclusion concerning the incident, discipline comes into the picture, with a mandatory suspension and reccomendation of expulsion for sexual assault and, in most cases, suspension for sexual harassment.
Despite efforts by the administration, students have continued to express frustration over a lack of actionable change.
“I haven’t seen enough change,” says CHS sophomore Cole Dahlia Prekoski, who made a public statement addressed to Jon Lyons about the lack of changes, during this year’s poetry slam. “I could understand if things were in the works behind the scenes that I might not see, but nothing has changed. All I’ve heard from admininistration is ‘We’re trying,’ even though I still hear boys on this campus make jokes about sexual assault.”
Though administrative changes may be imperceivable to the student body, many peers have taken individual and group action to change the culture at CHS.
Juniors Lelia Kraut and Sophia St. Laurent have been leading the Sexual Assault Education Club, a group dedicated to improving awareness about sexual misconduct and educating students on the issue.
“This is a topic that hasn’t been discussed clearly at our school,” says Kraut. “In this club, we’re all trying to actually make a change instead of just talking about it.”
The Sexual Assault Education Club is in the process of partnering with Planned Parenthood and the Rape Crisis Center, and members of the group hope to get trained by experts on the topic so they are able to discuss issues of sexual harassment and assault with other students. Five members of the club applied to be on the Planned Parenthood Teen Council, which the students explain will further their knowledge on the topic and give them valuable insight.
Other students joined a task force formed to address issues of sexual harassment and assault on campus. The group is composed of nine students and five staff members and has met three times as of the date of publication. The task force began by proposing issues that students would like to see addressed and making a plan to resolve them. Some of these solutions include a student-run restorative justice program, as well as the implementation of peer mediation.
“We want to explore some things and then figure out what’s best for our students and our school,” says Tuana. “We’re not just going to do restorative justice because it sounds cool. We’re going to do it if we think it’ll work and tweak it towards what we need.”
As the end of the school year approaches, students continue to question what changes will go into effect in the fall, with the hope of more specific plans by administrators and larger-scale adjustments to ineffective policies.