When a student is raped, you’d hope that Seattle Public Schools’ administration would do a little more than shuffle its feet awkwardly. Now, following Al Jazeera's story about a fifteen-year-old Garfield High student who was raped on a field trip in November 2012, the chance to confront Seattle Public Schools' warped approach to teenage sexual assault has never been better.
Despite physical evidence of traumatic sex, psychological evidence of assault, contradictions in the boy's story, and his own confession that he has persuaded her to "roll with it", Seattle's district ignored the victim's documentation and took over a year to decide that the case wasn't strong enough to declare the girl a "victim of harassment." Not even rape. Her family is thousands of dollars in debt after her months of stay in a residential care facility, and her educational path and mental health are in tatters. If not for her parents' tireless efforts, it is easy to imagine the entire case swept neatly under a rug.
22 other school districts nationwide are currently under federal investigation for similar administrative violations (alongside 64 colleges also under investigation for mishandling sexual assault cases). It has become obvious that schools can be dangerously out of touch with students’ culture—not only the fashions, but the beliefs, in this case about sex and consent. Most frighteningly, it is also obvious that institutions can come to value stability over student welfare: the superintendent responsible for Seattle Public Schools’ grossly inadequate response retains a position of power, now heading Sacramento’s schools.
There are many obvious questions—where were the trip’s chaperones? why didn’t someone in the district advocate for this girl? But my first question was, how’s my little sister?
See, she’s away at camp. And she’s a young teenager, younger than the Garfield High victim, currently fighting an uphill battle against home bans on mascara and dating. I thought this was funny at first—what do kids her age even do on dates?—but I don’t anymore. How many of her desires are organically generated, and how many are born of pervasive pressure to be older, wiser, more sexual? What might this pressure drive her into, as she gets older and sex becomes more tangible?
The opportunity is ours now. We have a chance to overhaul how the school district handles sexual assault. Unless we hold the district accountable, we’re all complicit.
And my brother, too: has anyone talked to him about consent? Is 14 too young for that? Is there such a thing as too young? This alleged assailant was the victim’s classmate – 15 or 16, perhaps. His first documented infraction occurred in middle school, Al Jazeera reports. (I wonder how that girl is doing; whether she truly and deeply consented to the on-campus intercourse or whether his social status and the thorny and critical culture of preteens forced her into the ground under him.) Does my brother know that there will be concepts of masculinity presented to him that he can choose to reject? Or will his friends and his music and his icons tell him that sometimes a person needs some convincing, that some people just have it coming, that rape is an inevitability and a misnomer?
That’s the culture. The Garfield High girl is a victim not only of rape but of the widespread belief that it was her fault. Her classmates laid blame at her feet, and the inaction of school administration has tacitly backed them up. Her initial refusal to name her assailant in the hope that he’d seek help is a narrative common to our culture, which implicitly blames women for sexual violence. The boy is a product, too, of a culture that teaches popular, athletic children that the world will bend to accommodate them, that compliance is to be expected.
This case isn’t just about students and rape, though. It’s also about the school district’s knee-jerk reaction of self-preservation, as they stuck their heads in the sand and willed the assault away. They approached the investigation with all the objectivity of CNN covering the Steubenville sentencing. Their flailing, contradictory responses to the victim’s parents are too erratic to be the product of any misplaced opinion: rather, they speak to blatant bias, staggering ineptitude, or unwillingness to self-analyze. We can all look forward to their inevitable stammering. This heat is deserved.
Seattle Public Schools had an opportunity here. They could have clamped down on sexual harassment and assault, admitting past mistakes while using this tragedy to build a strong anti-assault platform on which to move forward. They could have used this victim’s story to spread awareness of how to handle assault. They could have protected her as she returned to school and kept tabs on the behavior of her peers. They could have made sure that her assailant faced something more than a ten-day suspension. They could have helped her parents find justice.
But they did none of that. The district’s leaders closed their eyes and wished the problem away. They struggled to save their own asses at the cost of a teenage girl.
So that opportunity is ours now. We have a chance to overhaul how the school district handles sexual assault. The public needs to speak out and make it clear that neither the institution's response nor the rape culture that enabled it is acceptable. Because unless we hold the district accountable, we’re all complicit.