As a high school freshman, Serena Evans knew she was perceived as a kid who “did everything right.”
A skilled tennis player, Evans remembers having a good rapport with her teachers. She received good grades and was mostly happy at school. But by the time she started her freshman year at Myers Park High School in Charlotte in 2016, Evans had already experienced years of “daily” sexual harassment: lewd gestures, boys touching and grabbing her, telling her vulgar things.
When she would flag these behaviors to school staffers, Evans said, she was advised to be patient, that “boys mature slower” than girls do.
Then, in October of her freshman year, Evans said, she was raped in a school bathroom. Within a week, she reported the assault to police and told a school administrator what had happened. She was shocked by his response.
According to Evans, the assistant principal warned her that if the school opened an investigation and her alleged attacker was found innocent, she would be suspended for being in the boys’ bathroom. She remembers him saying that it would go on her school record and possibly damage her chances of getting into college.
The administrator also told her not to talk to anyone else about the alleged rape, she said. (The vice principal did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said the district can’t publicly discuss individual cases.)
Years later, the insistence on her silence has stuck with Evans, now a 20-year-old student at University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“I was told the exact same thing by my school as my rapist,” she said.
[Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too.]
In the past several months, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), North Carolina’s largest school district, has been roiled by new accusations from students and graduates that the district has mishandled reports of sexual abuse, from sexual harassment to rape, on school campuses. Among the latest allegations, local news outlet WBTV reports, is a high school student who says administrators at Hawthorne Academy of Health Sciences put her on academic suspension after she reported a sexual assault.
On Tuesday, the school board announced it was suspending Hawthorne’s principal and assistant principal with pay as it conducts an investigation of the incident.
It has been “gut-wrenching” to hear the recent allegations from students at CMS schools, said Elyse Dashew, chair of the district’s board of education, which oversees all policies, budget and disciplinary actions for the school system, covering 180 schools and more than 140,000 students.
Dashew has her own “lived experiences” with sexual violence, she said, and she feels especially limited by her inability to speak to specific incidents. (She cited federal privacy rules, as well as the board’s responsibility to hear appeals on these cases, which prohibit board members from publicly weighing in on student and personnel issues.)
But Dashew pledged that the board would investigate any allegations of retaliation against survivors: “Unequivocally, no student should ever be punished for coming forward,” she said. “It sends a message we can’t afford to send.”
CMS is far from the only school system confronting allegations about the way it has responded to sexual assault cases.
In September, students at six high schools in Northern California walked out to protest the handling of at least two recent sexual assault complaints. This month, high school students in Kansas City, Mo., and the San Francisco Bay area also held protests.
“We need them to take these issues more seriously than they do,” Crawford Patten, a high school student who participated in the Oakland, Calif., protests, told ABC News.
Just like students at colleges and universities, K-12 students who attend publicly funded schools are entitled to Title IX protections, which bar gender discrimination at those institutions. Title IX also outlines protocols for reporting sexual violence, and it requires schools to support survivors so they can continue their education as their cases are being investigated.
But while there has been more attention – and resources – given to survivors of sexual violence on college campuses over the past decade, students who experience sexual violence in grade school often do not get the same level of support, said Emma Grasso Levine, manager of the youth survivor advocacy group Know Your IX.
“We are really seeing this trend of schools shirking their responsibility, specifically in a high school context,” Grasso Levine said.
They noted that it was not unusual for high school students, in particular, to report being threatened or disciplined for reporting sexual violence, as Evans said she was.
Until relatively recently, students may not have known that they have federal protections – which include switching classes or schedules so they don’t have to come in contact with their alleged abuser, or getting academic accommodations that acknowledge the physical and mental health impact of experiencing sexual violence.
Patrick Smith, a spokesperson for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the district has required that Title IX classes be taught to elementary and middle school students within the first 20 days of the school year since 2017; high schools must complete the training within the first 10 days. (Evans, who graduated from Myers Park High School in 2020, said she did not learn about Title IX until her freshman year of college.)
Grasso Levine added that Title IX changes under then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also created challenges for students of all levels. The guidelines require a much higher standard of proof for allegations and offer more rights to the accused.
In March, President Joe Biden called for a review of the Title IX rules, though the White House has yet to unveil any new guidelines.
But grade-school survivors face an additional set of obstacles, Grasso Levine said.
“The power dynamics in K-12 spaces are really distinct from those in higher-education cases,” she said. They are often more dependent on adult guidance than college-age students, Grasso Levine said, and depending on their level of knowledge about sexual violence and consent, K-12 student survivors may not be able to properly name what happened to them or know that it’s illegal.
This is a big challenge facing CMS, according to Dashew: There is no clear road map for how to address these issues. She has been speaking with officials at other school districts, trying to figure out what works. “I haven’t gotten clear information on what [Title IX] is supposed to look like for K-12,” she said.
She is exploring expanding the district’s Title IX department to make sure staffers are thoroughly trained and that students and faculty members feel supported. The board has also started a “student-driven” task force that will advise schools on how to better raise awareness among students of the Title IX process, Dashew said.
Nikki Wombwell, a graduate of Myers Park High School, has her doubts about how serious school officials are about supporting survivors. The 22-year-old Charlotte resident has helped organize recent protests against the district, and she spoke at a recent school board meeting about her experiences reporting a rape to school administrators in 2014.
“They care more about looking good than being good,” Wombwell said.
Wombwell said she was assaulted in the woods outside the high school a couple of months into her sophomore year. When she reported the attack to a school resource officer, Wombwell said, he told her it wasn’t rape if she had been intimate with him before (her alleged attacker was an ex-boyfriend).
According to Wombwell, Principal Mark Bosco also warned her that she could be disciplined for having sex on school campus.
So she kept quiet.
Then, in November 2015, Wombwell saw a news report about a lawsuit filed against Myers Park High School by a Jane Doe. The case was “eerily similar” to hers.
“That was kind of the moment where I realized, ‘Wow, what happened to me was not an isolated incident. This has to be happening to other students as well,’” she said.
In 2019, six years after her alleged rape, Wombwell filed her own lawsuit under the name “Jill Roe.” This past summer, she and the school settled the lawsuit for $50,000.
Bosco did not offer additional comment on Wombwell’s case. He stepped down as principal of Myers Park High School this past month after the district conducted an investigation of his handling of rape and sexual assault cases at the school. Bosco was reassigned to another administrative role at CMS. His lawyer, Sally Higgins, released a statement at the time claiming that CMS found “no basis to conclude that Mark Bosco mishandled or failed to respond to any allegation of sexual misconduct.” (CMS did not release the results of the investigation.)
Wombwell and Evans said they were never interviewed as part of the investigation.
Now a survivor advocate, Wombwell said she and others in the community want to see clearer protections for students who report sexual violence, with clear non-retaliation policies and accountability for staffers who violate these rules. She and Evans have helped organize another protest in Park Road Park in Charlotte, planned for Nov. 20.
“I’m stronger than I was at 15,” Wombwell said. “I want to protect the 15-year-old that I was and the next 15-year-old.”
She added: “I’m fighting back now against the system that wronged me. That makes me feel less hopeless and less helpless.”