Chaney Tipton said she was in eighth grade when she went on her first date with a classmate – and was sexually assaulted.
At the time, she and her mother turned to a school counselor to report the incident, but were told nothing could be done as it had happened off campus, they said.
Five years later, the Denton student feels he has finally found a way to make his school officials listen.
This fall, the high school student circulated a petition and organized a protest to share her experience with others and demand justice in her school system.
One Friday morning in mid-October, hundreds of students from Guyer High School left the classroom, dressed in blue, to join the protest. They chanted âEnough is enoughâ and carried signs that read âSilence is violenceâ and âPunish the rapist, not the victimâ.
Guyer’s walkout is part of a series of actions Texas students have taken in recent months to protest allegations of sexual assault or harassment by classmates and how school systems have responded to them .
These protests spill over into calls for social justice in 2020 when scores of young activists marched to protest racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd.
Likewise, Little Elm students staged what was to be a peaceful high school protest in mid-November after a classmate shared on social media that she was sexually harassed by a peer on the bus. . The protest escalated with police spraying students with pepper and shocking one with a stun gun.
But in the aftermath, district officials created an independent committee to review Little Elm’s harassment reporting and investigation process. An independent investigation is also underway into the incident that sparked the protest.
And in Austin, students from McCallum High School walked off campus chanting, âNo, that’s no! To raise awareness about how this district handles reports of sexual assault and harassment, according to KXAN. In response, the director of McCallum organized a community meeting to discuss resources and a new organization – called MASA – McCallum Against Sexual Assault – was formed by administrators and students.
Students have a long history of exercising their right to protest issues such as immigration, gun violence or sexual assault because it is part of youth activism, said Kimi King, acting chairman of the political science department from the University of North Texas.
âWhat is perhaps more intense about this is that coming back from COVID, students are much more aware of the challenges they have faced,â King said. “Higher levels of civic engagement are nothing new in times of turbulence.”
A common thread among recent protests is the belief among students that school districts can do more to support those who come forward saying they have been sexually assaulted or harassed. The need for a better system to deal with claims prompted Tipton to act.
âSchools say the most important priority is to have a safe environment,â Tipton said. “But in this environment, it was the least safe I have ever felt.”
From eighth grade in high school, Tipton struggled with her trauma on campus whenever she encountered the student who allegedly assaulted her. She reorganized her own academic plans and went into therapy, but still struggled with what she described as a failing system to support students.
Tipton was hoping authorities would make sure his alleged attacker was not in his class. But she ended up dropping a French course because it would have meant learning alongside her.
Denton school officials take every report of misconduct seriously, spokeswoman Julie Zwahr said in a statement. District staff don’t tell students there is nothing they can do to help them, she said.
Helping students “is what we do every day,” Zwahr said.
âWhenever a report is received regarding the safety of our students, campus administrators conduct a thorough investigation,â Zwahr said.
If violations of the district’s code of conduct are discovered, administrators assign the consequences, she noted. If actions are considered criminal, district officials file a report with local law enforcement.
If an arrest is made, the district will immediately remove the alleged perpetrator and take precautions to protect the victims, the spokeswoman said.
Advocates for survivors of sexual assault or violence stress the need for schools to play a proactive – not a reactive – role in creating a safe environment for students.
âIt is always important to remember that these incidents do not happen in isolation and that people who might need support could turn to someone within the school community,â said Ariel Gordon of the National Rape Network. , Abuse & Incest or RAINN. The answer “will ultimately have the potential to impact that student’s ability to fully engage in school.”
The most important thing they can do to support their students is to cultivate an environment where students know about the means available to write reports and seek support, Gordon said.
Campuses must advertise resources, such as a hotline; the means of reporting incidents; and make sure all staff know what to do if a student comes to them, Gordon said.
Students are likely to turn to trusted teachers or counselors with whom they have a strong relationship, noted Ellen Wilder, program coordinator for The SAFE Alliance, an organization that supports survivors of sexual assault.
âThe most important thing you can do is believe and validate someone who has come forward,â Wilder said. âYou don’t know if this is the first person they disclosed the violence to. If they get the message – you are too much or I don’t believe you or that was okay – it will prevent them from getting help again.
Teachers don’t have to be mental health professionals to respond appropriately in these situations, Wilder said. They just have to be present, listen and validate their students.
Recent protests show that students don’t feel like they are being listened to or being served well, Wilder added. In response to the protests, schools should sit down with the protesters to jointly craft stronger policies that address the concerns.
Schools could implement new rules that provide students who present themselves with a connection to a mental health professional or start integrating the Healthy Relationships and Signs of Abuse curriculum. Texas has a new law that requires schools to teach students about dating violence and other abuse, but parents are required to sign these lessons for their children to attend.
âOf course the administrator cannot control individual behaviors, but there is so much more that he can control over the consequences,â Wilder said.
RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Hotline is accessible to anyone who has experienced any type of sexual violence and is available 24/7 at 800-656-4673. Hotline staff can either provide immediate support or connect survivors with local resources.
The Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center 24/7 hotline is available at 972-641-7273. All crisis center services are confidential and free. Some services are available in Spanish.
The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation on pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.
The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.