About 50 Ashland High School students and a few adults squeezed into two Ashland School District office buildings adjacent to the high school, chanted “Stop the violence, break the silence,” and sang songs in an effort to send a message to the district Monday, a week after a student’s widely circulated social media post about an alleged sexual assault prompted a response from the school.
The sit-in, organized by Ashland High’s “Got Consent?” co-founders Bella Head and Nicole Locklin, began at noon between district office buildings when Head, a 16-year-old junior, read a one-page public statement that slammed the high school’s handling of sexual assault survivors and its response to reports of sexual violence.
“Ashland High School is breaking the law by not complying with the federal civil rights laws dealing with sexual assaults in schools,” Head, surrounded by her fellow protestors, read aloud. “Sexual assault at Ashland High School is a regular occurrence. AHS has failed to support survivors and does not comply to the Title IX requirements. … As a result of the school’s failure to comply with Title IX, survivors’ rights are violated, investigations are compromised and follow-up is inadequate.”
Head later summarized what the students wanted from the district: “A district-specific training and a clearly defined group of people in charge of investigations and compliance; an established system for students to work with trained, confidential advocates to understand options; and the school to understand that a criminal investigation does not relieve them of their Title IX obligations, and the two are not related.”
Head wrapped up her statement by explaining how the sit-in and temporarily displacing school staff was symbolic of what she characterized as the school’s lack of response to sexual assault accusations like the one that drew hundreds of responses and shares on Facebook last week.
“By interrupting their work by sitting in their office, we are making it harder for them to do something that is important to them,” Head said. “This is how they treat our cases that are extremely important to our well-being and future.”
After Head finished her statement the students filed into the office building in the campus’ southwest corner. They filled up a waiting room and a hallway, with some standing and some sitting. A girl strummed a guitar in front of an office window as a group of about 10 students played UNO; in an adjacent waiting room another small group played Clue.
After about a half-hour, the crowd left that building and walked across the parking lot to the adjacent building, which houses the office of interim Superintendent Suzanne Cusick. There, the students took up almost every inch of floor space before a girl with a guitar led group renditions of several songs, including “Lean on Me” and “Stand by Me.”
Locklin said Monday’s demonstration was all about shedding light on an issue she believes has not been dealt with adequately at AHS.
“I believe in what we’re doing and obviously I started this campaign with Bella so I recognize that there’s a serious problem in this town, in this community and at this school with pushing sexual assault off to the side and not recognizing that it’s a serious issue that we need to be addressing,” she said. “Because people are getting assaulted all the time, this school is not taking it seriously and no one is making a difference.”
Among the protesters were co-student body presidents Amelia Zeve and Kate Joss-Bradley. Zeve, daughter of Ashland School Board member Deneice Covert-Zeve, said Monday’s sit-in was an opportunity for the student body to make a statement and she was pleased that so many students took the time to do so.
“I think that definitely the real power of the school lies within the students,” she said. “We have a lot of people at this high school who have been affected by sexual assault, they’ve been survivors of sexual assault, they’ve risen above it, so I think … so I think when we have a community effort like this where people are standing up and speaking out against this stuff, that’s where the real power is. Because the community isn’t looking to see how the school responds. They’re looking to see how the students’ respond. Because this is our school, these are our classmates. The girls who have been assaulted and affected, they are our peers, they are our friends. We care about them.”
Cusick pulled into the parking lot while demonstrators were still in the adjacent building.
“As long as their behavior is appropriate, we certainly respect their right to express their opinion about this,” she said.
Cusick said she’s received a number of emails — less than 10 — about the original Facebook post and the fallout since it was posted Dec. 5 and defended the district’s Title IX compliance.
“We follow title IX as closely as we can, and that means doing an investigation immediately when an incident is reported,” she said.
Cusick, who said she had read the original Facebook post, which has since been taken down, and called it “Pretty horrifying,” also encouraged concerned parents, students, community members and victims to call her directly, something she said so far has not been done.
“Because unless I have a direct conversation with people,” Cusick said, “I can’t control the rumors or what’s being posted, obviously, but I do want to follow up. We have three daughters and a son of our own. I want to follow up and, really, emotional and physical safety of our students is of paramount concern to us.”
Concerning last week’s accusation, Cusick said she’s been in contact with Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara and that APD’s investigation is running concurrently with the district’s own. Typically, the district’s investigation is handled in house by an administrator, but not in this case.
Cusick explained why.
“We have several trained investigators — administrators who have been trained in Title IX issues,” she said. “But in this case, because it was so complex and became such a community discussion, we went with a third-party trained Title IX investigator. … And we do that because it could be perceived that we have bias, it could be perceived that we’re not as well trained as somebody from the outside. And it’s also possible and likely that our current administrators who have huge full-time jobs don’t have as much time to dedicate to interviewing all the individuals.”
Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.