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*names changed to protect identity
Laura Pederson* was empty. Empty and twelve pounds lighter, after a week of not sleeping or eating. She had been raped seven days earlier in her own home. She reported the incident, and action was taken. But she was still empty and stripped of self-respect, left a vulnerable shell of herself.
Two years of therapy and processing later, she walks through a sea of black – of a student body rallying around another survivor and the cause of preventing sexual assault. She was proud of her peers, and she wished their support was enough to keep the movement from dying out. But she’s seen it too many times: someone gets sexually assaulted, and then everyone forgets.
“It’s kind of like leaving soda out for a couple days,” Pederson said. “It just loses its fizz, and it’s just gone. It’s gone, and no one really cares about it.”
After an alleged sexual assault on East grounds was reported on by the KC Star and 41 Action News on Sept. 20, students responded with a metro-wide movement – #WearBlacktoStopAttacks – in the hopes that the national issue of sexual assault continues to be discussed. For one day, Sept. 21, students wore black in recognition of unnamed and unknown sexual assault victims throughout the school, community and country.
“Wearing black doesn’t signify sexual assault happened on [only] one day or that we should be aware of this on [only] one day,” said senior Brena Levy, one of the creator’s of the #WearBlack movement. “We want to keep perpetuating it in the school. We talked to the administration, and they want to do that too. We just want to continue the talk.”
Though a single conversation sparked #WearBlacktoStopAttacks, many conversations have followed in its wake. East parents talked with their sons and daughters about their own experiences with harassment. Students spoke with their peers about what behavior was considered inappropriate. Principal John McKinney began considering the discussion he wanted to have with his students, in which he would clarify how to report a sexual assault and emphasize the necessity of it. Creators of the #WearBlack movement, who believe sexual assault is a bigger issue than an isolated incident at East, started working with the administration to form an awareness group.
Following the alleged incident, a Harbinger survey was sent to the student body addressing sexual assault, defined by the Department of Justice (DOJ) as any unwanted sexual activities such as forced sexual intercourse, forcible sodomy, child molestation, incest, fondling and attempted rape. Of the 511 responses,12.7 percent reported that they had experienced sexual assault falling under this definition. And while 82.6 percent responded “no,” they had not been sexually assaulted, a remaining 4.7 percent reported that they were “not sure” if they had been.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cites that 35.8 percent of sexual assaults occur when the victim is between the ages of 12 and 17 – middle and high school-aged students.
“People don’t address the high school stuff as much as they should,” said sexual assault survivor Caroline Tanner*. “They think college, because people are going out more, getting drunk more, everything. But it can happen anywhere, any age. Literally every one of my closest friends [has] been drunk and taken advantage of.”
Eight survivors, who expressed their willingness to be interviewed in the survey, showed through their differing stories that sexual assault or harassment can happen anywhere and in any way: a church with a boy one’s been dating for three years, in a hotel room with a stranger – or in one’s own bed.
Tanner was 15 years old when she was raped at a party.
“I was blacked out,” Tanner said. “Totally gone.”
Her friend stood just outside the room while Tanner unknowingly, and therefore unwillingly, lost her virginity. The friend had told the 17-year-old rapist, another partygoer, that Tanner was okay with it.
She didn’t go to the police or administration, and since her first experience, has been sexually assaulted in a similar way on multiple occasions.
“It’s so normal to me. People underlook it and don’t think it’s as big of a deal as it is,” Tanner said. “Even people it happens to kind of just brush it off. That’s what I do and that’s what my friends do.”
Though it may have become normal to Tanner, sexual assault typically wasn’t talked about at the high school level, according to Levy. After the #WearBlack day, though, Levy felt like the environment of the school was one where sexual assault could be openly discussed.
“At the end of the day on Wednesday, I told Ireland Hague [co-creator of #WearBlack], ‘I’ve heard the word assault so much today that I’m sick [of] it, that I just want it out of my vocabulary for the day,’” Levy said. “And she said, ‘Well that’s the point.’ We wanted people to talk about it. And I heard people talking about it from the moment I walked into the building to the moment I left.”
The Coordinator of Prevention Services for MOCSA, the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, Haleigh Harrold, spoke to the necessity of getting the entire community involved and educated when working to prevent sexual assault.
“We know that when there’s not this willingness or urgency to combat sexual violence, or there’s not this conversation happening, that’s a culture that allows sexual violence to occur,” Harrold said.
Choir director Ken Foley does not believe that East, specifically, fosters a culture that allows sexual violence to occur. Instead, he asserts that what allegedly occurred at East could happen anywhere.
“I have a daughter here. I never worry about her being safe – here at East. I worry about her in this world, and that includes East,” Foley said.
Foley believes that the discussion of sexual assault should be held primarily outside of school, as it is the parent’s responsibility. He also thinks the conversation should begin before high school.
“I’ve had that conversation,” Foley said. “My daughter’s a senior in high school; if this is the first time you’re having that conversation with your daughter, man, you missed the boat.”
Mother of three boys – two who attend East – and SHARE coordinator Krissie Wiggins has also been educating her sons since pre-school, though she did see the recent events as an opportunity to bring up the conversation again. She decided to tell them, for the first time, about her own experiences with sexual harassment. Her sons were surprised by what they heard.
“She said construction workers, when she was walking down the street, were like, ‘C’mere honey,’ like, ‘Bring that over here,’” her son, senior Mick Wiggins, said. “That kind of ticked me off a little bit. When you think about your own mom, being in a position like that, it just kind of hits home.”
Mick had conversations with a few of his friends about what constituted inappropriate behavior in the days that followed the alleged assault and the #WearBlack movement.
“I know some guys who will jokingly comment on a girl’s appearance at a party or something, even when she’s in earshot,” Mick said. “But then once that [sexual assault] happen[ed], I think that everybody’s kind of stepped back and realized all the different things that can be considered sexual assault. Some of them were like, ‘Whoa, I’ve said that before.’”
Hague and Levy believe that East should play a part in educating students about sexual assault and its definition.
“A lot of state colleges have something where, before you can enroll, or sign a housing contract, you have to take a sexual harassment test, where you have to actually study,” Levy said. “I think something like that should be worked into even high school.”
East counselor Brenda Tretbar previously worked at a school where they educated about sexual assault, classroom to classroom. She felt that this education helped students recognize the indecency of their comments.
To educate, McKinney has plans for creating a mandatory sexual assault awareness program. He also has invited anti-bullying speakers in October, MOCSA to speak in November and is continuing to assist Feminist Club in spreading the definition of consent. He wants to incorporate more sexual assault awareness into health classes and hopes to make the process of reporting a sexual assault clearer.
“The immediate process is report it to a trusted adult – teacher, counselor, social worker, administrator. That is your first step,” McKinney said. “We need to make that process more clear to our students. We’re going to work on the process, educating students, and not just at this level, but in the other grades as well.”
In hopes of educating and seeing similar results, the leaders of the #WearBlack movement are working in conjunction with the administration to create an organization that will raise more awareness for sexual assault.
“It’s an awareness program,” McKinney said. “We’re anxious to maintain the awareness, not just within East, but across the country, that has been generated as a result of recent events. Those students and I have made a commitment to one another to support one another’s efforts in maintaining awareness. Not – here we are, all built up and worked up, and then it just sort of ends. We’re committed to not allowing that to happen.”
While the administration and students are committed to raising awareness, Tretbar sees a broader end goal.
“Our goal in raising awareness,” Tretbar said, “[is] to not have it ever happen again.”