The Denver Students used what worked in Boulder as a guide to create their own push for change.
The East High students didn’t have to file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights. In fact, Denver Public Schools’ Title IX coordinator agreed to meet with students bi-weekly starting last fall. Together, they’ve combed through DPS’s sexual misconduct and discipline policies. While DPS’s policy is compliant with federal law, student advocates say it’s not adequate. Why? Students say it’s 12 pages of legalese. That may be necessary from the district’s point of view, but it often doesn’t help a student who has been sexually assaulted.
“You read it and you’re like, ‘I have no clue what this means,’” said East High senior Angel Kroger. “And it honestly pushes away survivors from even wanting to, to make a complaint. Because you’re so confused. And you’re like, ‘I can’t do this, you know?’”
These DPS students say they’d like a step-by-step guide in plain language on how to report a concern or file a formal complaint and what services the school is supposed to provide like helping a survivor change classrooms if the accused student is in the same class.
“There is absolutely more we can and will do so that it is clear [and] easy to use, so people feel like they understand what their rights are,” said DPS’s general counsel Michelle Berge.
Berge added that all students in the district are able to call the district’s Title IX coordinator “and say what does this mean, please walk me through this.”
The students are also pushing to add some things and change parts of the policy they believe hurt students who file complaints. Berge explained the district has to be in line with federal law. She added that the new rules enacted by former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos do give the accused the opportunity to give more feedback.
But Berge said when the district tries to take 2,000 pages of federal regulations on Title IX and make a policy that’s correct, legally sound, and comprehensive, “you’re losing the humanity of it.”
“The students help bring humanity back to our policies and check our assumptions about what makes sense, what doesn’t make sense … what’s included and what’s not included. It’s important to keep having these conversations with people who are experiencing how these regulations are implemented at the school level.”
In many underfunded school districts, the burden of making real change has fallen on students.
“In the absence of a crisis, like a lawsuit or a criminal trial, or a major threat to the reputation of a school district, they’re not always either willing or able to invest in the kind of prevention approaches that we know work,” said John Shields with the behavioral health nonprofit ETR.
The group has an initiative that provides free resources, services, and products to K-12 districts and schools seeking to improve their efforts to address and prevent sexual and gender-based harassment and assault.
Shields said districts place most of their focus and resources on policy, regulatory compliance and risk management.
“That’s just not what science tells us works in terms of actually preventing these incidents from happening in the first place,” Shields said.
The most effective strategies, he said, are targeting services at students who are at elevated risk of being exposed to harassment and assault or engaging in those behaviors themselves, as well as “universal prevention.” That includes comprehensive sexual violence prevention training on healthy relationships, dating violence, what affirmative consent is and is not, and creating physical boundaries.
“So, if we really want to address that, shouldn’t we be educating kids when they’re still young?” Shields said.
Denver’s East High students said students don’t have the knowledge about what behavior is acceptable or unacceptable.
East High’s Hermela Goshu said some students don’t even realize they’ve been sexually abused because certain behaviors are normalized.
“A lot of my friends and a lot of people that I know went through a, like, ‘Oh my God, I was sexually assaulted.’ So, people are experiencing sexual assault and sexual violence. And not even knowing that it is that because we’re not teaching them that it is that.”
The toughest battle, students say, will be changing problematic school cultures, what some students refer to as a “rape culture” that permeates some high schools. Boulder’s Sophie Dellinger defines it as a persistent culture that allows top athletes to get away with things other students don’t. She said it “has led to the normalization of sexual violence.”
“Sexual assault, sexual violence, dating violence is rooted in misogyny,” Beatriz Sanchez said. “It is rooted in toxic masculinity for the most part. It is rooted in the objectification of people.”
In Boulder, student advocacy has led to more prevention training. Local nonprofit Moving to End Sexual Assault has trained all BVSD school staff on sexual violence and mandatory reporting. In January, it began teaching four lessons to all 7th and 9th graders on healthy relationships, dating violence, sexual violence, consent and supporting a friend.
BVSD Survivors and MESA are encouraging the district to adopt the “Coaching Boys into Men” program, an evidence-based 12-step curriculum for high school athletic teams to promote respectful behavior and help prevent relationship abuse, harassment and sexual assault. The St. Vrain Valley School District has run the program for several years.
Studies have shown the program is effective at reducing abusive behaviors in male athletes as early as middle school. Positive peer pressure programs have also been shown to reduce sexual violence among high school students.