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SF high school students sound the alarm on sexual assault, harassment on campus

Courtesy Aubrey Sumi

Students approach Daniela Oropeza every day, asking her for advice, comfort and to share their stories of being sexually assaulted or harassed during or after school. But she’s not a trained therapist or Title IX officer. She’s a 12th grader at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts. 

Oropeza, who organized a school walkout to protest the way the district handles sexual assault and harassment cases this month, said her peers trust her far more than they do the school’s teachers or administration with their stories, and with their search for closure and justice.  

She’s one of dozens of students calling attention to sexual assault and harassment on local high school campuses, and who say school administrators haven’t done enough to keep kids safe at school. 

Oropeza said she alerted the San Francisco Unified School District Student Advisory Council, a panel that represents student interests to the school district, and other student leaders about her plans to protest earlier this month. Word got out at other campuses, setting off a chain reaction of protests and letter-writing campaigns among student organizers across the city. 

The students say at every step of the way, the onus has been on them to advocate for their own safety. Even the district’s Title IX policy, which instructs students to file a formal complaint in cases of sexual assault, leaves victims on their own in the reporting process. Once an investigation culminates in a report, all parties can respond before a final decision is made. Students say this process can be retraumatizing, especially if they are asked to sit with their attacker or rehash the details of their assault. Instead, students are opting to take photos of their own sexual assault reports and gather their own evidence instead of engaging with the district’s case system, student leaders said. 

Now, they’re organizing walkouts at school, calling meetings with administrators and even launching an effort to design new curricula for health classes. So far, the students say none of it has been enough to elicit a real response or any tangible action from adults.

“We’re students,” said Lowell senior Adrianna Zhang. “We’re not supposed to be doing this. This isn’t our job.”

SFUSD did not provide information on sexual assaults or Title IX cases in the district and pointed to a copy of its Title IX policy when reached for comment. Student activists say they haven’t seen any data either, but also speculate that many cases likely go unreported. Zhang, who serves as chair of the San Francisco Youth Commission, said schools’ mandatory reporting rules—meaning staff are required by law to report any suspected or actual child abuse to law enforcement—can serve as a deterrent. Instead, students turn to social media, to their friends or to student leaders like Oropeza to share their stories. 

Oropeza says she is a survivor of sexual assault since middle school—although she didn’t realize it at the time of the incident—and describes her and her classmates’ experiences as part of a larger “rape culture” across local campuses. According to student leaders, changes to Title IX under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which enshrined the presumption that perpetrators are innocent, exacerbated the problem. 

The student walkouts have renewed an effort among students to push tangible changes to city and district policies. Oropeza is working to organize a district-wide protest in early December, while the San Francisco Youth Commission and SFUSD Student Advisory Council are working on specific Title IX reforms while calling city leaders to action.

Rhea Iyer, President, SFUSD Student Advisory Council; Joanna Lam, Student Delegate to the Board of Education, SFUSD Student Advisory Council; Adrianna Zhang, Chair, San Francisco Youth Commission; and Ewan Barker Plummer, Commissioner, San Francisco Youth Commission, pose in Lakeside Landing in Ingleside District on November 23, 2021. | Camille Cohen

One of the groups’ first initiatives was to draft a letter to the superintendent, the school district and the Board of Education that demands greater transparency and changes to the way Title IX cases are executed at local schools. In the letter, the students call for more support for students filing incidents that occur off campus, and for rules that bar those accused from interacting with victims in class, extracurriculars or otherwise. 

On Monday, the Youth Commission passed a resolution echoing the letter’s stances and calling on city leaders to exercise their departmental duties to help youth survivors. The group is also asking the Board of Supervisors to restart the Safer Schools Sexual Assault Task Force, a team of experts and researchers that operated for two years in 2016 and 2017, but this time with greater input from youth. 

Meanwhile, the SFUSD Student Advisory Council is asking the district to reform its health curriculum to deter sexual assault and boost support for survivors. 

One major sticking point for students has been their schools’ protocol for complaints, which governs only incidents that occur either at school or at school-sponsored activities that occur off-site. However, students say that incidents that occur between students at non-school functions can bleed into the learning environment—and oftentimes, reports of sexual harassment or assault don’t meet the strict legal definitions dictated in the state’s and district’s policies, leaving some complaints to be dismissed as mere bullying. 

“If the system isn’t working for us, then we need to build something that is,” said Joanna Lam, a member of the district’s student advisory council and a student delegate to the Board of Education. “So we’re looking at different ways that we can address concerns that don’t fall under Title IX.”

Thanks to social media, the protests have spread beyond San Francisco’s public schools. Local private schools and even smaller groups, like the student-led Lowell High School Song dance and pom team, have organized their own walkouts.

Last Friday, Lowell Song boycotted their usual cheer routine at the varsity football game, instead walking the halls of their school in uniform with statements like “no means no” and “stand with survivors” written in Sharpie marker on their legs. The goal of the protest was to support sexual assault survivors and bring attention to how girls are treated while in uniform. 

Many of the Lowell Song members shared stories of being catcalled, stared at, followed or groped while in uniform on the way to and from campus, never leaving the house in uniform outside of daylight hours or avoiding public transportation on game days. On campus, too, the members say they’ve fielded inappropriate comments from teachers, been catcalled by their own peers and aren’t taken as seriously in class while in uniform. 

Before the protests, many of these stories were shared only among the song team. But after seeing their classmates and students across the city walk out in solidarity with sexual assault survivors, the girls said they felt empowered to speak up together. 

“​​I finally felt empowered to wear my uniform,” Reesalyn Tayag said. “I know whenever we are walking down the hallways, people usually do look at us, but that's just because they're sexualizing us. But then this time it kind of felt like we were calling them out.”

The song members, too, feel like their safety is in their own hands, when it should be adults who take responsibility for creating a safe school environment. 

“We have no one to advocate for us besides ourselves,” Kaylie Wong said.