For teenagers, the #MeToo reckoning has taken a different shape than it has for adults.
Here in San Francisco, students at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA) held a walkout and teach-in last Friday to protest what they say are inadequate official responses to reports of sexual assault and harassment.
That same day, more than 300 private school students at Lick-Wilmerding High School also walked out in protest, citing similar administrative failures.
And back in December, several hundred high school students marched to City Hall and San Francisco Unified School District headquarters, where they held a moment of silence for survivors and handed out pamphlets stating their demands. In short, they want school officials to take all allegations of sexual assault and harassment—both on and off campus—far more seriously and provide support for survivors.
“Students feel like they gave so much,” said Daniela Oropeza, a SOTA student and one of the main organizers behind the protests. “They were so vulnerable with administration.”
And yet even as students like Oropeza have coalesced around a vision of change, they feel that administrators within SFUSD have failed to meaningfully engage them.
In the absence of satisfying responses to their demands, students in San Francisco have taken matters into their own hands, working to shift the cultural norms surrounding sexual misconduct so that they are better alligned with their generational worldview.
At a handful of high schools, clubs have formed to support survivors of sexual assault and harassment, or otherwise organize against it. “There’s more community and unity—that’s been the biggest change that’s happened,” Oropeza said.
At the same time, they’re trying to equip each other in ways they weren’t equipped before. Two students, Zoe Yee and Whitney Lu, crafted a toolkit through a leadership program called Young Asian Women Against Violence (YAWAV). The toolkit seeks to explicitly codify rules and expectations on consent, reporting rights and more—and eliminate the plausible deniability that has provided cover to sexual assaulters and harrassers for generations.
They’re working toward distributing it at schools through site officials across the district while fostering better relationships between students and adults running the schools.
“Students and adults are seeing this information from two different spheres,” said Yee, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School. “That just causes so much conflict to where you can’t communicate with each other.”
Shifting generational currents go a long way in explaining the genesis of this student-led movement. The cohort of teens currently working their way through our nation’s high schools began forming their views on appropriate sexual behavior in a post-#MeToo world.
But the pandemic, and the social dynamics it created, was also a major factor in leading to this moment. Covid school closures gave students the time and privacy to process their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in a different way; some felt empowered to share their stories anonymously on social media—at a safe remove from in-person blowback. These students had models to follow in creating these whisper networks.
Back in 2018, the “Shitty Media Men” document was widely circulated throughout the journalism industry. Last year, a woman working in the beer industry in Massachusetts took to her Instagram account and invited other female-identifying brewers to share their stories of sexual harassment and the campaign went viral. A similar series of social media posts also came out of Lowell High School during the pandemic.
Emboldened by their experiences of freely trading stories online—and dismayed that changes to school policies were not forthcoming—a list of alleged abusers appeared in a SOTA girls’ bathroom after students returned to in-person learning in the fall of 2021.
The conflict came to a head in December, when students from roughly a dozen high schools in the city walked out of class to make demands to the San Francisco Unified School District: They called on the district to create a safe reporting process, establish a support system for survivors, make reporting rights more accessible, and outline consequences for perpetrators even if the incident occurred away from school property or at an officially sanctioned event, which is currently not covered by federal law.
Title IX, a federal civil rights law passed in 1972, outlaws sex-based discrimination in schools or educational programs that receive federal funding. But it also hamstrings local policy and procedures around sexual harassment and assault, which can change with the whims of the federal government. Under the Trump administration, sexual harassment was narrowly defined to be “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.”
As part of its lengthy response to student demands, SFUSD listed two people designated as Title IX Coordinators and linked to a list of each school’s designated Title IX officer—the person in charge of guiding students through district policies.
SFUSD committed to hiring another investigator in the Office of Equity, which district spokesperson Laura Dudnick said will start next month, and to create an advisory group on sexual harassment, which began meeting in March. The district also pledged it would continue professional development for staff on prevention and response.
“While there are legal limitations on what we can do in these cases, we want students to know we hear their advocacy and their shared frustrations,” Dudnick said in a statement. “SFUSD remains committed to further supporting and engaging students in their requested changes.”
Students like Oropeza still feel the district’s response falls short in providing support for survivors and connecting them to resources outside of the district. On the system-level, the focus on policy hasn’t changed in their view.
But their efforts have not all been in vain.
The recent protests gave many concerned students their first opportunity to open up about their experiences, huddled in a circle of supportive peers. Some students who had begun unpacking their feelings at the beginning of the school year finally realized that some of their past experiences were unacceptable.
“Seeing others being so vulnerable in their stories is what helped me share my story,” said Gateway High School student Cecilia World. “And I definitely would not have imagined myself doing that in any other context. I wanted other kids to be fully educated so that they don’t feel ashamed.”
World is part of SASHA—Students Against Sexual Harassment and Assault—at Gateway. Balboa High School, Lowell and George Washington High School are known to have similar clubs.
The aim is not only to provide support to survivors, but to educate peers around consent and how to intervene in scenarios where boundaries are crossed through consistent workshops and presentations. At Gateway, students get an initial lesson as freshmen but SASHA said reminders are needed.
“This is a safe space not only for survivors but also from perpetrators,” said Amina Fuller, a senior at Gateway and SASHA president. “It’s preventing a person from becoming a perpetrator. We’re here to support the students and to hear them, but also to make sure that their voices are amplified and represented.”
Students also have a desire to access resources outside of the district and process their experiences. Some may not feel comfortable confiding in an adult who would be a mandated reporter in a process they don’t trust.
That’s what led SASHA to create a pamphlet and Oropeza to create a Linktree of SFUSD rights, with resources on how to make a Title IX complaint, FAQs around sexual violence and accessible counseling. She wasn’t alone.
Not wanting to sit around as anger among students escalated, Yee and Lu created a toolkit through YAWAV at Community Youth Center of San Francisco, where they were already engaging in discussions around gender-based violence. It defines sexual harassment and assault, consent, how to intervene and includes info for hotlines or shelters to turn to. It’s available as a slideshow, transcription and narration.
Yee and Lu mass-emailed high school administrators to collaborate on workshops and get the toolkit to students to some immediate success. They also aim to get the toolkit listed on the SFUSD Title IX webpage, which lists other resources, and for educators to have a look.
“I’ve heard it’s very accessible and that’s what we wanted to do,” Yee said of youth feedback. “It’s one thing to be educated about it. We also want to normalize conversations with students, conversations with students and adults.”
Lu and Yee were deep in conversation with Board of Education leadership and presented the toolkit at a meeting in March. After the recall, onboarding new commissioners and responding to a budget and staffing crisis, engagement has stalled. But sooner rather than later, Lee said, the school board will need to address sexual assault and harrassment within the city’s schools.
“They’re really taking it upon themselves,” Lee said of students. “There’s a lot of really big dreams and just wanting for change at their own personal school because they’re not seeing it on a district level. The outcry will only continue to get louder.”
Have you or someone you know experienced sexual harassment or assault? Here are a few resources (also mentioned in this article) that can help:
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