EVERETT — This fall, students at Everett, Lake Stevens and Snohomish high schools walked out of classes to bring awareness to the prevalence of sexual assault and to dismantle rape culture.
Over 100 Everett High School students marched from the school’s lawn toward downtown last week, carrying signs: “I should be able to feel safe at school,” “Sexual assault is real,” and “No means no.”
They stopped at Clark Park, where students listened to their peers share stories and demand systemic change.
“Sexual assault is something that is so passed up in everything — the workforce, school, just in general,” sophomore Nicole Johnson told The Daily Herald. “That shouldn’t be a thing. … It’s important for our community to understand the pain and the suffering that we’re going through as children.”
Many students said schools have a responsibility to teach proper social etiquette as kids go out into the world.
Across the county, protests were organized through social media. Some students used Instagram as an anonymous forum for stories.
After a year of virtual learning, many students have come out of their homes eager to be seen and heard.
“We’ve seen, even during the pandemic, that there’s been a willingness to speak out against what they see as injustices,” said Justin Fox-Bailey, president of the Snohomish Education Association. “We’ve seen kids standing up against sexual violence, racism and anything they see as a breach of their civil liberty. They want to be loud and they want to be heard right now.”
Everett High walkout organizers say they reached a tipping point earlier this fall. Nyx Lewis said nearly everyone either knows a survivor of sexual assault, or is a survivor.
Yet he feels it’s not a priority for school leaders.
“We take their concerns very seriously and will continue to improve upon our support for students,” said Kathy Reeves, a spokesperson for Everett Public Schools.
The district didn’t receive a specific list of complaints or concerns in the wake of last week’s event, Reeves said.
She added that “we are always looking for ways to improve and will continue to engage our students in conversations on the topic.”
Everett Public Schools Superintendent Ian Saltzman pledged to “continue this conversation with students to better understand their concerns and respond accordingly.”
Students want tangible promises.
Senior Emma Larson called for courses about sexual violence and resources for survivors. Other students, like Sophia Morgan, said the district needs to bring students into policy conversations.
“Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re talking about,” Morgan said during the march. “We have voices and we want them to be heard. And we want change, and that’s why we’re here.”
Students want better communication from the district when reports of sexual assault are investigated, Morgan said.
Above all, students want the district to examine their biases and take every student report seriously.
In October, dozens of Snohomish High School students walked out demanding the district condemn rape culture after one student forcibly kissed a freshman girl, 14, according to the girl’s account.
The freshman left her fifth-period class to get water, she said in an October interview with The Daily Herald. While at a vending machine, a male student she didn’t know approached and asked for her water, then her name and phone number.
“So I kind of stay silent and he grabs me and he kisses me,” the girl said.
Many other students came forward with similar stories of unwanted touching, sparking widespread calls for the district to push back against the attitudes enabling the behavior.
The girl’s mother, Betsy Rodriguez, told The Herald it’s up to the school to catch “the little things,” and nip it in the bud.
The school hired Clear Risk Solutions to investigate alleged employee misconduct.
Principal Eric Cahan and Assistant Principal Anne Tompkins were accused by the girl and her family of failing to properly investigate the alleged sexual assault, and the school’s perpetuation of rape culture by “not holding the perpetrators accountable,” according to Clear Risk Solution’s investigation.
In late November, the school announced Cahan would return from administrative leave on Dec. 1.
A summary of the investigation notes Cahan said he was familiar with the district’s policies on sexual harassment, but didn’t review them and didn’t know steps in the procedure “inside and out.”
Tompkins said the district has a policy about when to call police but that she didn’t follow it correctly, the report states. When asked what policy she was referring to, she said the “Title IX stuff,” investigators wrote.
The report states the allegation that Snohomish High permits rape culture was “unfounded.” The investigator wrote the school was “dealing with those allegations” that have been reported since the early October report.
Snohomish High School students said for years they have reported non-consensual touching and inappropriate comments.
A student “tried to do the same thing to me in 7th grade,” a student wrote in a private conversation later posted on social media.
“I complained about him to multiple adults and they just told me to either tell him no or ignore it,” another student wrote.
And when the freshman gave her statement about the October assault to school leaders, she felt her concerns were dismissed.
Peers echoed her sentiment.
“I found her crying on the bathroom floor,” one of her friends wrote in a private message on social media.
“They make a bigger deal about the (expletive) dress code than this,” another student messaged.
In early December, students at Lake Stevens High School held a walkout calling for school and district administrators to address allegations of sexual misconduct.
It was ignited by a report that a staff member allegedly walked into the girls’ restroom unannounced, said Lake Stevens senior Blue Evans. Superintendent Ken Collins told The Herald it was a false allegation, and the result of one student’s report.
Evans said the superintendent claimed he cannot do anything about things “that simply aren’t true.”
Collins said the investigation lasted a couple days, and “video evidence outside the restroom … just showed incontrovertibly that didn’t happen.”
He continued: “I think that all kind of has died down now,” he said of students’ reaction. “Hopefully, it has, and hopefully, this article will not reignite that. We dealt with it professionally and appropriately. And I think we’re good now.”
But the protest, Evans said, was about more than one incident.
“When you get under the surface on this stuff … there’s been issues at this high school for a really long time,” Evans said. “When I had posted about what was happening … I had a mother contact me that had gone to Lake Stevens High School and said that this stuff happened when she was there too.”
Collins said the district has heard the student body, and students will continue to lead the conversation through the district’s first Student Advisory Council that will meet for the first time in January.
Meanwhile, in Snohomish, the school district has been meeting with student groups “to listen to and discuss issues and topics, such as those expressed at the student walk-out in late October, that are important to them.”
“Student safety remains the Snohomish School District’s utmost priority, and all reports are taken very seriously,” said Kristin Foley, a district spokesperson. “Students are encouraged to report any incident that makes them feel unsafe to a teacher, staff member or trusted adult. The district also utilizes the SafeSchools alert tip line. If a student ever feels like they are in immediate danger, they should call 911 right away.”
At the Everett rally, students were joined by those who graduated long ago.
“I think it’s wonderful that the high school kids are doing this,” said Everett resident Ann Schmidt, 67, during Everett High’s march. “When I was in high school — nobody did.”