Westport schools respond to allegations that they mishandled multiple sexual assault complaints
WESTPORT — A group of Staples High School students’ alleging Westport administrators failed to react adequately to complaints of sexual assault have been met with reactions from Central Office ranging from surprised to defensive, to concerned.
“Last night when I heard our students say maybe we can improve their comfort level — I don’t know how that may be, but we’re going to listen to them,” said Superintendent of Schools Colleen Palmer Tuesday.
Palmer and Director of Human Resources John Bayer both acknowledged the possibility of getting multiple teachers of both genders trained in Title IX — a request made specifically by the students.
Currently, Staples’ Title IX coordinator, in charge of investigating all reported cases of sexual misconduct, is Assistant Principal Rich Franzis, though Athletic Director Marty Lisevick is also trained in Title IX.
Palmer added all school employees are mandated reporters of sexual assault and that, although there were two official people tasked with leading investigations, “every single person is charged with the well-being of our students.”
For some, that barrier is significant. According to Quentin Ball, executive director of the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, “Sexual harassment or sexual assault is probably the most underreported crime in the U.S. for a number of reasons. Victims are often made to feel embarrassed or ashamed of what has happened.”
Ball’s colleague at the Center for Sexual Assault Crisis Counseling and Education, Prevention Educator Rosie Enyart, said that increasingly students are educating themselves on their rights.
“Student engagement and learning about sexual harassment policies at their school under Title IX is really important. I believe there are lots of students starting to pay attention to what their sexual harassment policies are and holding their schools accountable,” said Enyart, who works closely with area schools, including Staples, and recently participated in a panel discussion on the issue at the school.
First Selectman Jim Marpe also expressed his concern with the girls’ complaints and stated his belief the school and police would handle it appropriately.
“I believe the Board of Education, superintendent of schools, and police are actively addressing that and we’re all concerned as a community that one would feel they can’t come forward and express their concern,” he said. “We will work to make sure everyone feels comfortable coming forward and that they’re treated with respect and that we follow-through appropriately with any accusations or concerns about behavior.”
Palmer was also quick to point out that Staples was ahead of the curve in addressing issues of sexual misconduct when they began to gain more new coverage this fall with allegations against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey widely publicized. She released a lengthy press release on Wednesday defending the district’s procedure and vowing to accommodate students who may be uncomfortable. We want to remove any barrier that they perceive exists,”
Westport Police Chief Foti Koskinas said there is no investigation involving Staples students and sexual assault.
“The Board of Education is very responsive in notifying us if something becomes a police matter.