After pleas from high school students, and years of work by school employees, Seattle Public Schools has two new sexual harassment policies.

The updated policies, approved at Wednesday night’s board meeting, mark a change in how the district is talking about and preventing sexual harassment in schools.

One of the more significant changes was splitting the old sexual harassment policy into two — one for students and another for staff. The change allows for a more student-centered policy that focuses on survivors. 

The policies include strategies to prevent sexual harassment, offer additional support for survivors, add language that holds Seattle Schools more accountable and provide clearer details on the procedures the district must follow in sexual harassment cases. 

The district says the term “sexual harassment” may include:

  • acts of sexual violence;
  • unwelcome sexual or gender-directed conduct or communication that creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment or interferes with an individual’s educational performance;
  • unwelcome sexual advances;
  • unwelcome requests for sexual favors;
  • sexual demands when submission is a stated or implied condition of obtaining an educational benefit;
  • sexual demands where submission or rejection is a factor in an academic or other school-related decision affecting an individual.

In November, Ballard High School students began organizing and calling on district leaders to change the way sexual harassment claims are handled, and formed an advocacy group, Students Against Sexual Assault. Students around the district held rallies at schools and in front of district headquarters demanding a change.

Last week, about 300 students at Lincoln High School walked out of sixth period to rally at Wallingford park in support of stronger sexual harassment policies. 

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At rallies, some students described being sexually assaulted and harassed by other students and school employees. Many described feeling unsafe in school 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.

Although students say the updated sexual harassment policies are a positive first step, they also say many demands haven’t been met.

Students Against Sexual Assault 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 retraumatizing students, as well as an improved sexual education curriculum.

Lincoln students have also called for information on how the district disciplines those found to have sexually assaulted or harassed someone. They have asked that one staff member at Lincoln be designated to handle sexual assault claims, and want a positive and safe environment for survivors. 

But some of these demands, like therapists at every high school, would require the district to carve out money for therapists at a time when school districts nationwide — including in Seattle — are in a budget crisis. 

However, both sexual harassment policies could soon be changed as the Biden administration reviews Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.