By Venice Buhain
Originally published by Crosscut.com
Newport High School senior Alex Su wasn’t expecting to become a rallying cry across the region when she told her teachers and administrators that she didn’t feel safe around her ex-boyfriend.
“Nobody thinks about the situation until it happens to them. I never thought anything would come of this,” she said.
But what happened after Su, 17, posted on Instgram her frustrations with how the school dealt with her situation sparked protests at high schools from Bellevue to Seattle to Kenmore about district responses to student reports of sexual assault.
Students across the region—and the nation—are demanding a more robust school response for students who report dating violence and sexual assault.
“Students are fed up,” said Shiwali Patel, director of Justice for Student Survivors and senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “We are seeing that in the walkouts, on college campuses and high schools, even at middle schools. That’s a rallying cry for students. They need to be protected and they need schools to care.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, teen dating violence is common. About 1 in 11 female and approximately 1 in 14 male high school students have reported experiencing physical violence by someone they’ve dated. The CDC also points out that dating violence includes “psychological aggression,” stalking and sexual violence.
At a recent protest at Bellevue High School, students demanded changes to the school district’s harassment, intimidation and bullying report form; a sexual assault counselor in each Bellevue district high school and improved education on consent, grooming and partner violence.
When school started in September, Newport senior Su confided in a teacher after she had ended a short relationship with a classmate, whom she said was physically and emotionally abusive. When the school, located in Bellevue’s Factoria neighborhood, didn’t take her ex-boyfriend out of their shared choir class, as she had requested, she wasn’t surprised.
“The plan was he couldn’t sit next to me on the seating chart,” said Su, but they sometimes got placed next to each other in the choir.
She then spoke with the school’s assistant principal about her frustration before taking her concerns to Instagram.
After Su’s posts, she and other Newport students staged a walkout, demanding a system more responsive to student needs when dealing with cases of dating violence and sexual assault.
She and several other students were expelled following the protest, which caused a school lockdown and which administrators said disrupted the education process.
“I’m not surprised, because stuff like this has happened in the past. I am disappointed because I didn’t think it would happen to me,” Su told Crosscut after her expulsion.
She had concerns about how the school might respond before she went public: “It did make me reconsider a bit before speaking up,” she said. “I did it anyway.”
Without mentioning any specific students, interim Bellevue Superintendent Art Jarvis wrote in a message posted to the school community that the public response has been “one-sided.” He said many community members have presumed “guilt on the part of other students.”
“There is no tolerance for sexual assault or sexual harassment in the policies or practices of the Bellevue school system. Neither is there any room for a mentality that skips essential investigations and findings or neglects due process protection deserved by every person,” Jarvis wrote.
He said the district continues to investigate the allegations, but that the findings would not be made public because they involve juveniles.
Bellevue School District spokesperson Janine Thorn said the district is working with the school community, including parents, administrators and students, to address issues raised by students.
“We are hearing everyone’s concerns and having listening sessions,” she said.
She also emphasized that the district supports students’ rights to peaceful protest and to make their concerns and criticisms known.
Rights and responsibilities
Patel of the National Women’s Law Center said that under the federal Title IX law, schools and school districts are required to ensure that students retain access to their education when they don’t feel safe because of sexual harassment.
“Under Title IX, they have a civil rights obligation to preserve and protect her [Su’s] access to education. That is something that the school should have taken very seriously,” Patel said.
What gets complicated is that the aftermath of these relationships also follows the students to school, even if the alleged abuse happens off campus.
How Su’s situation unfolded could have a detrimental effect on other students in a similar position, Patel said. She believes what happened to Su could have a chilling effect and discourage other students from coming forward to seek protection from their abusers.
She added that Title IX not only protects the rights of the student who reports the abuse, but also protects the due process rights of the student facing the allegation and does not assume the person’s guilt. And it requires that both students retain equitable access to school.
Feeling unsafe at school can affect a student’s ability to learn and participate in school activities, she said, adding that schools have a role whether or not the alleged abuse happened on campus.
“They are the ones who can change class schedules to ensure the survivor feels safe,” she said. ”They are the ones who can take those actions, and they are required to just like other civil rights laws.”
In an interview, Su said that despite her personal consequences, she would still choose to speak up.
“I don’t regret making my report, even if I don’t feel it was handled the best it could be, I’m grateful that at least I said something,” she said.
“I think a big issue with the way that things happened for most people is a lack of empathy,” she added. “I’m talking about just plain human empathy [that] I don’t feel that has been shown.”
In early December, after the appeals hearing on her expulsion, Su was allowed to return to Newport High School under certain restrictions. She said the restrictions required her to stay away from her ex-boyfriend; barred her from participating in after-school activities; kept her expulsion on her school record, which would be seen if she applied to colleges; and required her to drop the choir class.
She said the last one was at the request of her ex-boyfriend.
“He quote-unquote ’felt threatened,’” she said. She left the class that she had enjoyed since the fourth grade.
She noted the irony that the district granted his request to have her removed, after they had declined her request to remove him from the class. She said she was upset before, but not as much as when she found out he got his request granted within a day.
Su currently is attending classes at Newport remotely because, she said, the district’s restrictions made attending in person difficult and because she continues to feel unsafe at school.
“I didn’t want to be in a school where the adults—where the people who are supposed to care—have shown consistently that they’re going to protect the abuser,” she said.
In the meantime, she is reappealing the expulsion to get it removed from her record.
Su said that despite not returning to class in person, she still plans to graduate from Newport.
“I’ve always loved Newport. I always thought we were really great,” she said. Although her recent experience diminished her view of the adults and administrators, it has heightened her opinion of her peers and friends.
“There are so many students who supported me, and have called for changes, and that I’m graduating with kids who have supported me would be really nice,” she said.