Following an incident of sexual assault on school property and a lack of explicit sexual misconduct policies, we are petitioning for two specific actions that Kellenberg Memorial Administration can take to promote a school culture with zero tolerance for sexual misconduct - ensuring the safety, rights and greatest potential of its students.
A report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) tells us that 40 to 50 percent of students in grades 7 through 12 experience some form of sexual harassment in just one school year. Extend the time-frame to a student’s full high school career and that number jumps to 80 percent of students. Researchers have found girls are more likely to experience sexual harassment. They report that it is so common and ingrained in their everyday lives that they are often unaware when they are experiencing it - perpetuating the problem. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, the issue is so pervasive that once our high school girls get to college, one in five of them will be sexually assaulted in their college career.
Sadly, sexual assault does not discriminate based on how remarkable a high school is. One of these reputable schools is my Catholic high school, Kellenberg Memorial, located in New York. Kellenberg educates young adults in grades six through twelve. Given the aforementioned statistics and the amount of time kids spend at school (especially in a school like Kellenberg with many active students often catching a 5:30pm late bus home), this is a safety concern that needs to be explicitly addressed to protect students. Private schools such as Kellenberg who run exclusively on tuition and donations, are exempt from Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and governs over protocols on how sexual assault/harassment is handled in educational settings. This means parents paying for their kids to attend Kellenberg are entrusting the administration alone to appropriately monitor these safety concerns without any oversight or compliance requirements from the government. Given that Kellenberg has a reputation of being a phenomenal school - and they are - this trust is often unquestioned.
However, Kellenberg Memorial currently does not explicitly address sexual misconduct in their school handbook nor do they seem to have a policy regarding how sexual misconduct is addressed. This is unlike like the school handbooks at diocesan high schools in the area such as Holy Trinity and St. John the Baptist in which they both have “Safe Environment Policy and Reporting” and “Sexual Harassment” sections. The similar language from these handbooks suggest this may be a diocesan requirement that Kellenberg is also exempt from since they are not considered a diocesan high school. The lack of such a policy is a surprising find given the high moral and academic standards the school upholds and the length of other sections of less importance than the safety and well-being of our kids.
A recent incident at the school has shed light on ways the school can improve on their policies and school culture. A seventh-grade girl was being harassed by two boys for weeks and received repeated, intimate, unwanted touching from them on school property. Despite written statements from witnesses and the victim's account, these boys only received two days of suspension and were back in school following the incident. The lack of expulsion is a stark contrast from the decision to expel other students for incidents such as school pranks or selling DVDs. The only response from the school was a message on their website which indicated that there was inappropriate behavior among "three" students and steps were taken to address it. The message implied that the victim was somehow to blame. The victim's family, who have other alumni children, chose to withdraw their daughter from Kellenberg for her own well-being. Following the incident, some students and alumnus took to social media to express similar experiences with the school at varying degrees. Others expressed their disappointment in the decision-making and the message the administration is sending.
After no further action or response from the school, we have created a petition. By signing this petition, we are expressing that these policies and messages need to change. We are expressing that we will not stand for a school culture in which sexual misconduct persists or is the norm. If female students are to be treated equally to male students, we need to ensure and be able to trust school staff understand consent in order to address sexual misconduct. We need to ensure that students will feel comfortable reporting incidents that infringe on their rights. We need to ensure that students aren’t implicitly held responsible for inappropriate touches or words they did not consent to, want, or deserve at any given moment (i.e. that they were flirting, in relationship with them, weren’t dressed appropriately). Parents need to ensure that their daughters will be heard and protected when such incidents occur – not shamed. We need to ensure school staff know that if ANY student reports being inappropriately touched or spoken to without their consent, we know asking the victim what they did or didn’t do to provoke it is victim shaming. We need to ensure school staff know that even within a relationship or during a consensual circumstance, unwanted contact can still occur and/or consent could be withdrawn at any time with words like: no, stop, etc.
Without an explicit school policy, we can not ensure these things.
We are calling for Kellenberg Memorial High School to ensure their school culture is one with zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. We are asking the administration of Kellenberg to take two steps that will ensure their students, our sons and daughters, are educated in a setting that has zero tolerance for sexual misconduct, ensuring the safety and greatest potential for its students. Kellenberg’s students will excel even more than they already do if they are in an environment that they feel safe, protected, and valued in.
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