Published Mar. 9, 2023
In March 2021, Sandpiper reporters interviewed dozens of students who came forward with allegations that they had been victims of sexual misconduct at the hands of their peers and that when they reported their complaints to Carmel High School administrators, their accusations were mishandled or not taken seriously. In the two years since then, The Sandpiper has continued to cover the evolution of the reform movement at CHS, but after years of effort, there has been little meaningful change at the school.
Despite the work of students, the cogs of the district’s engine slowed down the momentum that survivors of sexual misconduct had worked to create.
On Feb. 8, CUSD Superintendent Ted Knight acknowledged in an email to the Carmel community that the district has been “plagued with a longstanding systemic issue of failure in both the reporting and investigation of employee, student and community complaints involving sexual harassment.” For students, this isn’t news. We sit next to survivors of sexual harassment and assault in class. But more importantly, we pass assailants in the hallways.
To be clear, this isn’t an issue that was just uncovered by crusaders at the district. This is an issue that over 60 CHS students and graduates exposed nearly two years ago when they took to Instagram and posted allegations that their reports of sexual misconduct were mishandled by administrators.
Their cries were ignored.
When Knight arrived at the district in July 2021, he was aware of these concerns and noted in an interview with The Sandpiper last month that he has since worked to build foundations to assist the reporting process. But foundations are meaningless if they create no change for the students who are in need of help. The processes for reporting and investigating sexual misconduct are broken, and true reform requires more than website changes and the online staff training that does little to address the root of the issue: student behavior. More could have–and should have–been done to keep students safe.
So how can the district address the issue?
The district’s Title IX coordinator should not also serve as the superintendent, as Knight does. The reporting process is even more inhibited when the person who students are supposed to report an act of sexual harassment or assault to is the most powerful person in CUSD, someone who many students have never met or seen. The Title IX coordinator must be a visible staff member, in order to build a relationship, which will enable students to report concerns directly to them.
For many teenagers, their first experience with sexual harassment occurs in middle school–during gym class basketball games, in the back of a bus during the ride home from school or as students gather in groups to chat during passing period. Those three years are the time when students begin to push social boundaries and see what their peers deem acceptable. But what allows teenagers to develop habits of sexual harassment is a lack of action from their classmates when they hear them act out. Silence enables poor behavior, but especially during a stage of development where social pressures are enormous.
So how can CUSD support an environment where students feel comfortable calling out inappropriate behavior? It begins with direct and forceful anti-sexual harassment training for sixth graders, explaining during orientation that inappropriate behavior and speech has no place on campus or online and that there will be swift disciplinary action for any infractions. In November, the Monterey Rape Crisis Center gave a presentation to students on active bystander training, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
The disciplinary policy for sexual misconduct should be zero tolerance. Of course, this is only effective if there is follow through from administrators at Carmel Middle School and Carmel High School. CUSD principals must be consistent with their discipline, assigning students detentions–at a minimum–for crude comments directed at their peers.
By creating an environment where such behavior is so clearly intolerable, it would become easier for students to report inappropriate behavior and harassment because the acts would be less socially acceptable. The greatest issue with sexual harassment is that it is normalized and brushed off. Young teenagers need to be told that they do not have to tolerate that sort of behavior.
Finally, administrators should receive more training about the legalities surrounding misconduct investigations, so that they can better understand the burdens of proof for disciplinary action and not disregard allegations because they are a “he-said-she-said” situation. In criminal trials for sex crimes, California jurors are instructed by Criminal Code 301, which states that the testimony of one witness is sufficient to prove a fact. And if that standard is sufficient for a criminal conviction, it stands to reason that it could apply to disciplinary action at school. As such, if an administrator believes someone who comes forward with a complaint, regardless of the alleged assailant’s refutation, they should be able to discipline the student.
With an increased awareness of the steps that need to be taken during investigations, administrators can become better allies to students who report incidents of misconduct because they will know how to collect and document evidence that can be later used in an internal investigation or handed over to law enforcement.
Sexual misconduct doesn’t stop on its own. It doesn’t stop because of online training. It doesn’t stop because of one presentation a year about consent. Change requires that we hold each other accountable. Change requires the entire community’s effort and attention.
To students, do not sit idly by. And to the district, take action.
Scott Brown / March 9, 2023
This editorial would be brilliant if it was in the New York Times, let alone a student newspaper. Searing, moving, and ultimately constructive. That’s how it’s done. Thank you.