East High Protest (copy)

Students in the Madison School District stage a walkout and rally last month on the front lawn of East High School. The demonstration was the second of the week and was held to bring attention to what students called an inadequate school administration response to allegations of a recent off-campus sexual assault involving two students.

Madison Metropolitan School District students have been reeling after the latest known sexual assault in the district. Sexual violence is pervasive in our communities. We are steeped in rape culture, living in a society in which sexual assault and harassment are omnipresent and systems of oppression and violence are normalized. But consent and bodily autonomy are necessary, and they are human rights. Dismantling rape culture is a long and difficult, but necessary, task. Students do not expect MMSD to do all the work, but we do expect MMSD to work with us to find a solution. Disappointingly, students are struggling not only with assault, but also with the poor response of the district.

I am a student at Memorial High School, president of Memorial’s Gender Equity Association (GEA), and a member of the Rape Crisis Center’s youth advisory board. The GEA and the Black Student Union organized Memorial’s walkout in support of student activists at East High School in their fight against rape culture. However, school administration micromanaged our efforts, decentering student voices. It’s concerning that in multiple meetings, Memorial administrators steered the direction of the walkout. Club leaders were told to hold the rally “the right way,” to stage an event that did not explicitly support the unnamed East survivor nor criticize MMSD’s pattern of poor response to sexual assaults. We had to fight to acknowledge the East sexual assault at all, and Memorial barred us from sharing that we believed the survivor. Students also had to lobby to keep up a post criticizing rape culture in MMSD on club social media accounts. Some administrators later critiqued East advocacy efforts for being too accusatory.

But when East students share that former Principal Sean Leavy victim-blamed survivors in public and private, when students reporting assault are not provided referrals to survivor justice organizations, when school devices cannot search for survivor resources, when students do not know their rights, and when Memorial students anonymously sharing their on-campus sexual assault complaints are ignored because of security blind spots, we have an obligation to demand better. Other students were interested in co-writing this piece, but were advised against going to the media by a member of Memorial’s administration, arguing that the principal is working for change. But MMSD has dismissed student and RCC advocacy for years, so we will believe it when we see it.

Sadly, progress seems stagnant. When following up with Memorial administration in late October, walkout leaders were again disappointed. Principal Matt Hendrickson asked me to work with my RCC colleagues to create specific, student-accessible resources, rather than having the district use its current relationship with the nonprofit. While Hendrickson agreed on the need for more education on consent and survivor rights, the only planned action is a student-organized presentation to take place sometime between December and April. Our schools’ failures should not result in additional labor for students. Tragically, students needed support yesterday, not in five months.

While MMSD has brought in survivor advocates to support students during the past few publicly known sexual assault crises, much more needs be done. Required staff and student trainings must be done regularly. We additionally need a districtwide strategic plan that will tackle rape culture at every level and school in the district. And when the terrible does occur, answering student questions as openly as possible — without jeopardizing anonymity — is key.

Student advocacy makes the district healthier. When students organize and demand better for themselves and the district, adults should be eager to listen to what students are telling them and quick to take action, not hide and hope it blows over. Protecting MMSD and pretending their harms do not exist upholds the systems of violence that allow sexual assault to continue. And the cost is student safety. Our criticism comes from the knowledge that with MMSD’s support, we can build better schools.

Amira Pierotti is a senior at Memorial High School. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.