For months, Seattle high school students have rallied outside their schools and district headquarters demanding the district strengthen its policy concerning sexual harassment. 

On Wednesday, the School Board will vote to make significant changes to the policy. The proposed update outlines stronger strategies for preventing sexual harassment, adds language that holds the district accountable, offers more support for survivors, and provides clearer details on the procedures the district must follow in sexual harassment cases. The updates were proposed by district staff after several years of work.

At rallies, some students have spoken about being sexually assaulted and harassed by other students as well as school employees. Many described feeling unsafe in the hallways and in classrooms because they are forced to be around their alleged abusers. Others talked about being retraumatized during the reporting process, having nobody to talk to about their sexual assault, and finding that administrators do not always believe what they say.

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One of the biggest proposed changes to the existing policy is its emphasis on helping survivors, said Nicoló Potestà, a junior at Ballard High School who helped with suggested updates.

“That’s one thing that a lot of students were really hoping for — to have a survivor-centered policy and survivor-centered methods of dealing with sexual assault,” he said. “For a long time, the district and society focused on perpetrators rather than focusing on survivors.”

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Last week, about 300 students at Lincoln High School walked out of sixth period to rally at Wallingford Park. They listed a series of demands, including asking the district how it disciplines those found to have sexually assaulted or harassed someone. They asked that one staff member at Lincoln be designated to handle sexual assault claims and to talk with students about the issue. They also asked for a positive and safe environment for survivors.

Sexual assault and harassment need to be discussed more openly because so many students experience it, said Lauren Layton, a Lincoln High sophomore who spoke at the rally about being afraid to take the bus or walk around alone. Layton received an outpouring of support from her peers who walked up to her after the rally.

“This is just so important [to] also teach younger people,” Layton said. “I have a younger sister who’s never experienced this before and I really am trying to make it better before she’s my age.”

Student activism and organizing has been ongoing since November and December at Seattle and Bellevue schools, and has sparked a communitywide conversation about how schools handle sexual assault complaints. In Seattle, a group of students at Ballard High School formed Students Against Sexual Assault and led the charge.

Currently, the district has one policy that explains how to handle sexual assault situations for students and staff. But under the new proposal, there would be separate policies — one for students and another for staff. Having two separate policies is recommended by the Washington State School Directors’ Association.  

The policy for students calls for the district to offer individual support for students filing sexual assault complaints, and requires schools to take proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. 

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Under the new policy, the superintendent would develop a plan to have trainings and programs designed to identify sexual harassment early on and prevent it from occurring. The trainings could also help improve the climate at schools and enhance student engagement. 

Although some of the procedures in the existing and proposed policies are the same, the updated documents add language that holds the district more accountable. For example, the superintendent would be required to include student, parent and community input in an annual review of the efficiency and progress of the policy. The existing policy only “encourages” the superintendent to gather input from others. 

There’s also stronger language around retaliation. The proposed policies say the district will “proactively” ensure the safety and well-being of those who reported or witnessed sexual harassment. 

Updated definitions of sexual harassment have also been added to both proposed policies to comply with state and federal laws.

The proposed policies address some of the students’ concerns, but not all of them, said Potestà, who is also a SASA co-founder. “But I think it’s a very important first step to changing specifically how the Seattle school system deals with and thinks about sexual assault. I’m really, really proud of it.”

SASA wants the district to have a therapist who specializes in sexual assault at every Seattle high school and to create a policy that prohibits a student from participating in extracurricular activities if they are being investigated or have been convicted of sexual assault. The group also wants continuous training for all mandatory reporters in the district on how to handle sexual assault and harassment complaints without re-traumatizing students, as well as and an improved sexual education curriculum.

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In 2019, Seattle Schools created a Title IX task force made up of students, district staff, community members and experts in violence prevention, trauma response, prosecution of sexually violent crimes, and victim advocates. The task force was responsible for recommending updates to Seattle’s existing sexual harassment policy.

The Trump administration passed changes to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 in 2020, which prompted Seattle and other school districts to update sexual harassment policies. 

However, board member Chandra Hampson, who was involved in the updates, has said during meetings the policy changes are ongoing and will need to be updated soon, as the Biden administration reviews Title IX.

Wednesday’s meeting will be held at the John Stanford Center at 4:15 p.m. and is open to the public. It can be viewed online at www.youtube.com/c/SeattlePublicSchoolsTV.