Staples students, victims of sexual assault, look to change school policy

Photo of Justin Papp

WESTPORT — All Olivia Payne needed to say to her friend was, “You will not believe what ‘he’ did.”

“We’re at the point that we can both call him ‘he’ and we both know who we’re talking about,” Payne said during a meeting with Hearst Connecticut Media on Tuesday.

“He” was a classmate and friend of Payne’s and “he” had developed a reputation for inappropriate, non-consensual touching at parties and social gatherings, to the extent that five Staples High School students filed a joint complaint this fall alleging sexual assault and seeking some recourse.

Disappointed with the school’s response, the girls — Payne, Avery Landon, Sophia Sherman, Sydney Carson, and a fifth who wished not to be named — took a stand at Monday’s Westport Board of Education meeting to ask for students to have more say in how the school’s harassment policy is carried out.

“The reason why I personally have come forward and talked to the Board of Ed. and did this is not because of our case,” said Sherman, 17. “Our case as of right now is closed and is not their problem at this point. This is for everyone else in the coming years, coming into Staples High School. I don’t want them to feel like they have to shut up.”

Instead, the girls, all Staples seniors, are advocating for a louder voice at the table when policies are made, which was why they turned up to Monday’s meeting as the school board was adopting a revised sexual harassment policy. They want sexual education classes that teach the laws of consent, stronger sexual harassment and assault regulations written into the student handbook and Title IX coordinators of both genders.

Their request comes at a time when women are increasingly demanding their stories of assault be taken seriously, through the #metoo movement, through women’s marches locally and nationally and as more women step forward to name assailants in positions of power in government, the arts and the media.

According to each of the Staples students, they found out slowly through word of mouth that each had experienced similar unwanted contact with the boy at some point during their high school years.

None wanted to report her alleged assault alone. But, as the number of peers with shared experiences grew, they said, they decided to file a complaint with the school, though they feared repercussions with friends, family, teachers and even professionally, down the line.

A guidance counselor the girls first spoke with passed their complaints on to Staples’ designated Title IX coordinator, Assistant Principal Rich Franzis, in charge of investigating all reported cases of sexual misconduct, who met with them about their experiences.

“We didn’t go to Franzis immediately, we didn’t feel comfortable,” Payne said.

Though they found Fanzis generally receptive, what ensued after their complaints were filed left the girls fealing punished to the same degree as the boy who allegedly assaulted them.

Each recalled being taken out of class, sometimes in person by an assistant of Franzis, sometimes by being called over the loudspeaker, to meet with Franzis, who they said was kind, but, as a man, intimidated them.

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Many of the students said they wished the school had a female Title IX coordinator on staff — a request they made formally in front of the Board of Education on Monday. Though complaints can be made to virtually anyone on staff, before an investigation can begin, those complaints all end up in the same place.

“You can go to any teacher you trust, any guidance counselor, any school employee, basically. But the issue is, once they get it they have to file this paperwork and it ends up on Mr. Franzis’ desk and you have to go and talk to him,” said Monique Ostbye, also a Staples senior who spoke publicly on Monday. Ostbye is not one of the complainants, but is one of three students working with the five girls who filed to enact change in the school.

After the meetings, the parents of each complainant were notified without the girls being alerted, they said — not just that a complaint had been filed, but with embarrassing details of the alleged assaults that some had not wanted to share with their parents.

In other cases, as Landon and her mother found, details were softened for the benefit of the accused.

“I received a report from the school that I found shockingly white-washed and sort of glossed over. That was the initial thing to me that really sort of infuriated me,” said Landon’s mother, Stephanie.

“It kind of made me sound like I was the perpetrator,” said Avery Landon, who said she specifically told Franzis that the situation make her uncomfortable, though Franzis’ report said the opposite.

“They also said, to make you feel better, ‘The male student was made to feel very uncomfortable.’ How about the five girls who are uncomfortable everyday?” Landon’s mother said.

The experience, the girls said, has left them on edge and feeling the district’s response was not strong enough in proportion to their complaints.

After her alleged assault, Payne took an elective with the boy — she considered dropping the class when she learned of his presence but didn’t want to be seen as weak — and had to see him every day. Others saw him in the hall or at social gatherings, where his reputed actions were often explained away.

“People justify it. They say, ‘That’s just him,’” said Ostbye.

Meanwhile, Payne said she has heard of at least two other girls who have experienced similar actions at the hands of the same student, and knows of another group of girls who came forward with complaints about a different male student, but felt similarly stymied.

The girls said, aside from the guidance counselor to whom they first went with their complaint, at no point were they asked if they were OK.

“With Title IX, the entire investigation is about finding out if it affects us in the school setting. So how is it that the question, ‘Are you OK?’ never came up,” Carson said.

While at this point the girls have chosen not to take their complaints to the police, deciding to focus on policy instead, they said the administration never suggested they file a complaint with the police, which Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer said is protocol in reported cases that occur away from school grounds.

Though she declined to speak about the specifics of the complaint, Palmer said it was “standard operating procedure” to accommodate any student who said he or she is uncomfortable. She also said, while it is normal for administrators to urge parents to approach police to investigate off-campus incidents, the school cannot act as the complainant.

“I can’t get into ‘he said, she said’ with the families. That’s not productive for anyone,” the superintendent said. “We are advocates for children. It is our duty and responsibility to make sure students don’t feel uncomfortable.”

Though they are frustrated, Sherman, Payne, Landon and Carson said they feel optimistic based on the response of the Board of Education and the administrators when they spoke publicly on Monday.

“The fact that Staples is open to having that conversation, is open to listening to us, and listens to what’s wrong and listens to our suggestions — that is incredible,” Sherman said. “And I think that shines a good light on Staples, rather than a bad one, even though we’ve come forward with these things.”; @justinjpapp1