Westport students allege sexual assault complaints mishandled by school officials
WESTPORT — A group of Staples High School students say school administrators failed to act after they reported sexual assaults.
“This year I was a victim of sexual assault by someone in the school setting. I discovered that there were four other girls who had faced the same thing from the same guy,” said Sophia Sherman, one of four female students who addressed the school board Monday night.
The allegations came up at what was expected to be a short policy discussion on handling sexual harassment, which instead opened up into a broader conversation on the culture surrounding sexual assault and how it’s handled at Westport schools.
More than two hours into the meeting the four Staples High School seniors seized on the opportunity for public comment to lambast their school and administrators for failing to act when instances of assault were brought forth.
Sherman said the girls, unified, went to report the boy, who she said the alleged victims had all been friends with at one point.
“Basically, what came of that was a stern talking to (for the boy), which we also received, saying that we were not allowed to make it a hostile environment for him. And that if we talked about it, if we spoke about it, if we confided in friends, that we would be punished for making this a hard place for him,” she told the school board.
The case was incorrectly labeled by administrators as harassment, as opposed to assault, according to Sherman, which she said more accurately described the boy’s action, despite an admission to Staples staff by the alleged abuser.
Senior Sydney Carson also referenced an incident with the boy and the school’s lack of response.
“It has been observed by me and many others that the procedure for staff when faced with reports of sexual assaults off or on campus is little to none,” Carson said. “‘Let it go.’ That’s what they say. And by they I don’t mean my peers, I mean the school and the administration, seated behind their desks telling me that the best thing to do is to let it go and that that’s what’s best for everyone.”
Carson told the board she remembered trembling with her friends on the way to the assistant principal’s office
“We thought we were the ones on trial, constantly trying to produce as much evidence as we could to remember. I was called down twice just to be reminded not to talk about it with anyone or else I could be accused of harassment,” Carson said.
The students specifically asked the school board that the policy be changed to allow complaints to be received by a larger number of staff of both genders and that the board seek to involve students in future conversations on the topic of sexual harassment.
“We take the well being of each child very seriously and we will continue to take the feedback of the students we heard last night and work with all of our schools to make sure we have safe learning environments and continue to do our due diligence if we hear a student is in harms way,” Superintendent Colleen Palmer said Tuesday afternoon. She wouldn’t comment specifically on the claims of the students, but explained basic procedure.
She noted that incidents that happen within the confines of the school are easier for administrators to investigate. In the case of incidents reported that took place outside of school grounds, Palmer said she and administrators urge parents and students to contact the Westport Police.
Police Chief Foti Koskinas said Tuesday there is no “open investigation with any sexual assault involving students at Staples.”
Palmer and Director of Human Resources John Bayer both acknowledged the possibility of getting multiple teachers of both genders trained in Title IX. 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 that 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.”
“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,” Palmer said. “We want to remove any barrier that they perceive exists.”
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.
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.
Staples High School English teacher Kim Herzog, who leads a course on the Literature of of Gender, Sex and Identity — in which another of Monday night’s speakers, Monique Ostbye, is enrolled — said on Tuesday that as the #metoo movement began picking up momentum, her class had requested to focus more seriously on the topic of sexual harassment and assault.
According to Herzog, she adjusted her syllabus to include readings more relevant to the topic, and invited school officials like Palmer, Staples Title IX Coordinator and Assistant Principal Rich Franzis and Department Chair of Physical Education and Health Christine Wanner to speak to the class on sexual harassment in the schools and resources available to students.
Herzog and her class created a three-pronged approach to enact positive change in the community. Collectively, the class wrote an op-ed to student newspaper Inklings stating the need for an open assembly on sexual harassment and then organized that assembly, and distributed bathroom flyers with information on Title IX and available resources for victims.
Still, Ostbye and her peers voiced their grievances to Herzog.
“We had lots of conversations about their frustrations. The biggest concern they have is that they feel they want to be a part of these policy conversations and changes. I think their frustration is stemming from the lack of involvement they have,” Herzog said.
Under pressure from the students and some parents, the board considered postponing the vote on the policy, which had last been modified in 1995, to allow for more input from students. But several on the board stated that the students’ complaints could be better addressed in the student handbook and district-wide regulations on sexual assault, as opposed to the policy. Ultimately, the board unanimously approved the revised policy as it had been presented while promising to continue the conversation.
“We’re way overdue already. And although I did hear some great suggestions and comments from the audience tonight, for sure, that I again would encourage the administration to include these young women in the development of the regulations and the handbook information, I did not hear anything that said that this policy was wrong or incorrect,” said Board of Education member Candace Savin.
Prior to the board’s vote, a third student, Olivia Payne, told the same tale of a classmate who had assaulted her and four others but who from her perspective had not been punished accordingly, advocated for a cultural shift in the school’s handling of sexual misconduct.
“This school and others in the community need to seriously reassess how we deal with sexual misconduct and its perpetrators,” she said. “We need a community where survivors can come forward without fear of retaliation and feel that they are cared for.”
Sophie Vaughan contributed reporting to this story.