CHS students speak out about sexual harassment, the need for better education regarding consent

Columbia High School, above, will remain closed to students for the time being.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Students and staff at Columbia High School asked the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education and district administrators to address sexual assault and harassment among students at the April 19 BOE meeting, after students identified themselves as victims and shared their experiences online in early March. BOE student representative Lily Forman began the discussion at the meeting in her report.

“In the weeks leading up to spring break, many of my peers at CHS spoke out about instances of sexual assault and harassment they have experienced,” she said at the meeting. “These important conversations were primarily held over social media through Instagram posts and live videos.”

According to Forman, the high school’s administrators responded with opportunities for students to speak with guidance counselors, shared resources and committed to implement programming about sexual assault, consent and healthy relationships.

“Some of this programming has begun already, thanks to the Loft and the Essex County Family Service League,” Forman said. “Student groups coordinated responses as well, including an open discussion meeting planned by the POWER intersectional feminism club and a merchandise fundraiser organized by the Student Council’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month committee.”

She acknowledged CHS Principal Frank Sanchez’s having met with several student groups and said that students are grateful to him for listening to their feedback about them not wanting police to patrol Underhill Field in the evenings anymore. But Forman also said more needs to be done.

“The district’s response to these conversations should involve curriculum change, mental health support and a cultural shift in the district, not increased policing of students,” she said. “We need to ensure that this response is thoughtful, intersectional and takes all student voices into account. These conversations have made it clear that our district needs to embed discussions about consent throughout students’ time in the district, not just in one grade, class, lesson or assembly. When we shy away from talking about consent at a young age with all students we fail them, as evidenced by the stories my classmates bravely shared over the past month.”

Forman wasn’t the only person who asked for more education; teachers did as well. CHS history teacher Stephanie Rivera said students have come to her to discuss sexual assault and harassment experiences.

“Provide us trained professionals who are actually specialized in dealing with sexual assault,” Rivera said at the meeting. “There needs to be conversation about sexual assault, harassment and consent in school more than once, especially at a young age. This begins before high school.”

Greg Tuttle, another history teacher at CHS, asked for professional development for district teachers at the meeting.

In response to the comments at the meeting, Superintendent Ronald Taylor said he has spoken with Sanchez about addressing the problem several times, but that the conversation is far from over.

“Board rep Forman and I had a conversation around not just addressing the most recent concerns at Columbia High School, but, as she noted, going back to our middle schools and seeing what the genesis to these concerns is and making sure that we’re not afraid to have these important conversations,” Taylor said. “Students need to have them as early as we can have them.”

The district said in a statement to the News-Record on April 23 that it cannot comment on specific allegations of sexual assault and harassment involving students.

“Due to privacy issues, the district cannot comment on any allegations of sexual assault/harassment involving our students; however, we take any allegations of sexual harassment or assault very seriously,” the statement read. “We are committed to providing a safe space for our students and, in accordance with state law and district policy, follow-up on allegations. In addition, we are working with CHS to ensure that safe spaces and resources are available to our students.”