| Photo by Joe Livernois
By Charlotte West and Joe Livernois
A plaintive social media post by a former student at Carmel High School about harassment and sexual abuse has sparked a growing movement among young women who say they will no longer tolerate physical and emotional assaults.
After a thorough investigation by reporters for the school newspaper, The Sandpiper, and some initial stumbling, school administrators say they are now taking steps to “change the culture” on campus.
The issue of campus harassment and assault on female students came to light in response to an Instagram post by Itzel Rios-Ellis, a 2020 graduate of Carmel High, who in March shared her personal story of sexual abuse by a male classmate during her sophomore year.
What followed were dozens of responses from past and present students who had their own stories to tell about sexual misconduct and bad behavior by fellow students and a substitute teacher, and about how their complaints to administrators were allegedly ignored.
“There’s an extreme culture of this at Carmel High and in a lot of high schools,” Rios-Ellis,18, told Voices of Monterey Bay.
"This happens to so many of us." Itzel Rios-Ellis
She said she was inspired to post her story — and name her alleged attacker — after reading about incidents of femicide in Mexico, where her dad is from. She said she was just “so fed up with” the harassment, abuse and danger that many women experience on a regular basis.
“I had been thinking about him, my abuser, and what had happened,” Rios-Ellis said. “This happens to so many of us.” She said she reached out to him, perhaps to talk through it or maybe to elicit an apology, but he was dismissive: “He said ‘this is what guys do.’”
After more reflection, she decided to post her story.
“It’s not that I wanted sympathy, or revenge. It’s just that some of the closest people in my life have gone through the same thing. And it was like, ‘I’m done.’”
Rios-Ellis said she didn’t report the incident to school authorities — or to anyone else — at the time. “I really wasn’t thinking about even talking about it with anyone,” she said. “I mean, no one wants to be defined by something really traumatic, right?”
After she did go public, other past and present students at Carmel High started sharing their own stories.
The student newspaper then followed up on the story; reporters talked to students, teachers and administrators. One student told The Sandpiper reporters she told administrators she had been touched inappropriately by a boy while in a classroom. “(T)hey told me they would talk to the guy who did it,” the student said. “Afterwards they told me that there was basically nothing they could really do.”
Other students complained about previous efforts to address sexual harassment on campus, conducted by an outside agency during health classes. One student told The Sandpiper she believed the presentation “just made everyone think of the topic as a joke.”
A couple of days after Ellis-Rios’ initial posting, CHS principal Jon Lyons sent a message to students, teachers and parents acknowledging the issue and explaining school policy. His message was not received well.
“The entire email was very defensive and unapologetic,” Lauren Pritchard, a CHS senior, told reporters for The Sandpiper. “He danced around the issue, mainly talking about programs and future conversations.”
Lyons told Voices of Monterey Bay that he acknowledges that his response was “process heavy” and that it lacked empathy. Under normal circumstances, he said he would have addressed the issue with students in classrooms, but COVID closures made that impossible at the time. Now that school has reopened, he’s made a point to address the problem directly with students in classes, encouraging survivors to speak out.
"It breaks my heart to hear our students are in pain." CHS Principal Jon Lyons
‘We’ve been asking students, ‘What do you want from us? Do you want us to help report this to authorities? Do you want us to provide supportive counseling? They are saying they don’t want to put up with it anymore. They’re holding us accountable and that’s a good thing. They’re telling us that we need to have an actual and authentic response to issues like this.”
He referred to the pattern of assaults and bad behavior that are shrugged off or unreported — a pattern familiar on high school campuses for decades — as “boys-will-be-boys nonsense.”
“It breaks my heart to hear our students are in pain.”
Since mid-April, administrators have interviewed 60 students, and some of those interviews have resulted in referrals to law enforcement, Lyons said.
He said Carmel Unified School District administrators and board members are encouraging a crack-down on sexual assaults and harassment on all Carmel campuses.
While social media catalyzed the issue, the reporting by student journalists at The Sandpiper was a sobering account of the frustrations of students, past and present, who believe their valid concerns have been swept under the rug. The story is especially striking since independent high school newspapers have virtually disappeared, or suffer heavy censorship by administrators.
Carmel High School is one of the few public schools lucky enough to still have a journalism program and a school newspaper, a rarity in these days of education cutbacks.
The Sandpiper’s story, written by Emma Brown, Cassie Gorman and Alicia Krueger, addressed the issue honestly and confronted administrators directly.
The student journalists followed what was happening on social media after the Rios-Ellis post and “it became kind of a phenomenon over almost three days,” said Brown. “Every single time you would go on Instagram you would see a new horrifying story about these horrible, horrible things that had happened to students at our school …. And so we felt that it was important to report on that and give those students a voice and to explain the policies and how administrators deal with sexual misconduct issues and … how it’s been mishandled in the past.”
“There was an overarching recognition of a culture at Carmel High School that enables sexual misconduct,” said Krueger. “I think everyone as a student body kind of recognized that something’s wrong here. Something’s not going right.”
Gorman said that many of her friends have personally been assaulted or harassed, or know someone else who has. “So when this happened, it really broadened the scope,” she said. “And it made it seem like, oh, it’s not just my experience. It wasn’t just my friends’ experiences. This is actually a really, really big thing. It’s larger than we ever imagined it was. And I think we all kind of independently, (said) this is really important. This is a story we could write.”
While Lyons took the heat from The Sandpiper, he refers to the reporters as “rock stars.”
And teacher Mike Palshaw, The Sandpiper’s advisor, said that the ongoing story at Carmel High is one of “many issues that young people deal with today that existed in the past. But people are talking about these things now. I think student newspapers have the opportunity to write about the things that the PR folks (in education) aren’t going to write about.”
He said student newspapers not only let students “know they have a voice, but they let parents know what’s going on in their kids’ lives that they may have no clue is happening.”
A similar reaction to Instagram posts are currently capturing attention at San Lorenzo High School and other Santa Cruz County schools. Students in those schools are telling their own stories about sexual harassment at @santacruzsurvivorsspeak.
"I have a weird relationship with my story now, because I know that it did a lot of good. But it’s still really painful to think about." Itzel Rios-Ellis
Rios-Ellis, who just finished her first year at California College of the Arts, said she didn’t expect the reaction her post generated, but she is grateful that people are speaking up.
“I got a lot of closure from people that I needed closure from,” she said.
Among the reactions she’s received are young men who reached out and are “asking questions” and seeking advice, Rios-Ellis said. “They were asking advice about some of the things they had gone through, talking to me about their stories, or telling me that they had messed up and needed to figure out a way to atone for it.
“I have a weird relationship with my story now, because I know that it did a lot of good. But it’s still really painful to think about. I am really happy that I came forward about it, because this was something that I had hated that I had hid from every little corner of my life and from everyone in my life. And it turned me into things that I didn’t want to be and it made me really angry for a majority of my life.
“And a lot has changed. And I feel lighter.”
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