It started off as a protest about the alleged mishandling of sexual assault complaints from students at one Seattle high school. Now, that protest has morphed into a student-led movement in Seattle and Bellevue asking educators to change the way they respond to sexual assault cases.

On Wednesday, more than 100 high-school students rallied outside a Seattle School Board meeting, carrying signs that read “Protect survivors” and “You are not alone.” In an emotional show of solidarity with the students, newly elected board member Michelle Sarju told them she was gang-raped as a teen, became pregnant and chose to have an abortion.

Last month, protests with a similar message were led by students at Bellevue high schools. In both districts, students say they want administrators to do a better job of providing support and education to sexual assault survivors.

“We’ve heard dozens of horror stories … specifically about not just the sexual assault but how it was handled when the school found out about it, and how invasive and retraumatizing the process was,” said Nicoló Potesta, a junior at Ballard High and one of the founders of the newly formed Students Against Sexual Assault (SASA). 

Potesta helped lead a protest Nov. 8 in the Ballard High hallways and during lunch outside of the school, sparking a schoolwide discussion.

In Bellevue last month, students at Newport High School staged a protest that the district described as “unsanctioned” and “not a peaceful protest,” according to district spokesperson Janine Thorn. School officials called police and put the school in lockdown during the Nov. 19 rally, then expelled five students on an emergency basis, a step the district can take when it believes a student’s presence poses an immediate danger or threat to the education process.

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But since then, students and Bellevue staff have started conversations about change. 

“I think now we’re looking at the big picture,” said Lauren Kirkpatrick, a senior at Newport High. “Something is in the air, I don’t know what it is but it feels really different this year.” 

In Seattle, one of SASA’s goals is to show school board members how many students say they have been sexually assaulted or harassed, or know someone who has, said Rosa Basiji, SASA founder and a junior at Ballard High. About 400 students participated in the early November protests and many either spoke about their stories of sexual assault or wrote down descriptions of what happened to them.

MJ Lambard, a junior at Ballard High and SASA founder, has a binder filled with about 100 survivor stories students wrote, some anonymously, during the protests. Some students wrote that they have had experiences they didn’t realize were considered sexual assaults until recently. Most of the assaults occurred off campus.

After the Nov. 19 protest in Bellevue, students at Newport, Sammamish and Interlake high schools held a district-approved, 50-minute silent protest in solidarity with the five expelled students, Kirkpatrick said. About 500 students participated and almost all of those students also wrote notes to the district about what they want to see changed, including using restorative justice practices and more accountability in existing policies about sexual assault, harassment, intimidation, and bullying, Kirkpatrick said. 

Bellevue staff support the rights of students to protest peacefully and will provide the space for them to be heard, said Thorn, the district spokeswoman. Bellevue administrators are currently working with students, parents, and educators to talk about solutions, she said. 

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The Ballard High SASA group has four demands for Seattle school board members: They want the district to strengthen existing rules governing how sexual assault cases are handled, conduct mandatory monthly training for staff, place sexual assault-trained therapists at every high school and improve sex education in the schools starting from kindergarten, with a focus on teaching consent. 

“While these issues are of districtwide, statewide and national concern, we want to make sure that the raised voices of Ballard students and families are respected and an important part of the dialogue, just as other student voices at other schools have been part of this work for the past three years,” Seattle Schools spokesperson Tim Robinson said in an email.

Last year, the district’s Title IX task force drafted a report that recommended changes to the way the district handles sexual assaults, including sexual assault response training for all staff, increasing transparency and resources for families going through the reporting process, sexual assault prevention education for all grades, and creating an anonymous method to report concerns related to bias, discrimination, sexual assault, harassment, intimidation, and bullying. The board is expected to vote on the update in April.

Seattle Schools urges any students who has experienced sexual assault, sexual harassment, or harassment to report it as soon as possible to any staff member, Robinson said. The staffer will then report it to the Title IX office, which responds to about 200 reports a year.

During Wednesday’s protest, student speakers from Ballard and Garfield high schools described their assault experiences. They spoke about having to continuously see the person who they said assaulted them in their classes and in the hallways, and how the process of reporting sexual assault retraumatized them and made them feel unsafe in school.

Board members left the meeting to speak to students outside, and board vice president Chandra Hampson apologized to students for feeling unsafe in schools. Hampson said she is committed to rewriting the sexual assault policies.

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Student experiences like these have been reported for decades across the country, said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at Wellesley College Center for Research on Women who has studied teen dating violence, sexual harassment, and gender violence in K-12 schools for more than 30 years. She’s also been an expert witness in Title IX and sex discrimination-sexual harassment lawsuits in K-12 schools in federal and state courts. 

“It is quite common that students feel the school is not acting on their behalf and is not taking their complaint seriously,” Stein said. “School districts are great at ignoring student rights.” 

“Filing complaints with the school board doesn’t get much redirect and they try to keep it inside and not have it adjudicated in larger realms,” Stein said. “You don’t wait for somebody to tell you what your rights are, you have to know your rights and school administrators are notorious for limiting student rights, limiting them, and not informing them.”

Students can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, she said.