Student activism prompts administrative response to concerns of mishandling sexual assault cases
During the summer of 2020, a group of District 211 students created an Instagram account as an anonymous forum to share allegations of injustices they experienced at school. As the username “@alettertod211” suggests, the anonymous testimonies called on the district and school administrations for more affirmative action against racism, bigotry, and, predominantly, sexual assault.
Even though the posts were not limited to specific topics or schools, a majority of the posts concerned allegations from Conant High School students that the school administration had not done enough to respond to instances of sexual assault reported to the school.
The account has been deactivated as of earlier this school year. Though some students felt that the deactivation of an anonymous student forum was unfair and an act of silencing, the content of the account is not protected under First Amendment rights due to court precedents that have determined reasonable limitations on First Amendment protection for off-campus free speech, including student social media use.
Administration officials have told the Crier that they were concerned that the posts created potential student safety issues, which ultimately led to the account’s deactivation. The main concerns expressed by administrators were that the posts would be potentially “re-victimizing” students. Conant Assistant Principal, Lead Student Discipline Coordinator, and Title IX Investigator Jeannette Ardell said, “These posts were triggering for some students,” suggesting survivors may find that reading about similar experiences of sexual assault re-exposes them to the trauma of their own experiences.
Another administrative concern was that the account documented some experiences that were not reported to the school. Administration cannot intervene in situations that aren’t reported, and administration officials expressed concern that the account was therefore not accurately portraying the school’s process of handling sexual assault allegations.
Administrators have said that concerns are sometimes not reported because, if other illegal or inappropriate behavior was involved when sexual assault occurs, “Some students worry about people finding out, especially their parents,” Ardell said. “Others fear consequences with coaches for poor choices made outside of school. Many worry about retribution and suffering retaliation.”
The posts and deactivation of the account has sparked conversations and changes within the school and district. “At the time, I remember everyone was talking about [the account]. People were shocked about the situations and the amount of cases,” Conant student Hannah Large, ‘21, said. “The exposure and bluntness opened people’s eyes that it was a relevant issue in our community. Students, teachers, parents–everyone saw it.”
Student concerns regarding the district’s handling of sexual assault
At the district board meeting held on February 20, eleven students from D211 spoke through Zoom or in-person during the Open Session Public Comments regarding the issue of sexual violence in their schools. Of these eleven students, seven were Conant students, and the others were from Hoffman Estates and Palatine High Schools.
During their three-minute allotments, students shared personal stories of sexual violence and emphasized what they saw as lack of effective sex education; the lack of a positive, safe culture in schools; and the lack of clarity regarding the process of reporting sexual violence.
“We District 211 students are assured that all reports of sexual violence are taken seriously, and I have no doubt that is true. But we don’t know how they’re taken seriously, and we don’t know what the process is. Most importantly, students don’t know who to talk to or who to go to for help, and they don’t know that all staff are mandated reporters,” Conant student Sanjana Rajesh, ‘21, said.
Large similarly commented on the lack of easily accessible, comprehensive information when students have concerns. “When the students are unable to find accessible or comprehensive information on sexual assault or harassment, they don’t know that you care,” Large said. “It must be made abundantly clear that perpetrators are dealt with properly, and that victims get proper care. But right now that’s not clear. After working with Conant administration for over a year, it’s still unclear to me. Clarity and transparency are essential.”
Rajesh and Large are both members of Conant’s Sexual Assault Prevention Campaign (SAPC). SAPC is a group of students working alongside administrators to improve sexual violence prevention and awareness curriculum. It was formed in the spring of last school year after a group of students came to Principal Julie Nowak wanting to raise more awareness about sexual violence prevention. Though it is not yet officially recognized as a club within Conant Activities, the group has been meeting remotely and functioning as a bridge between the student body and the administration.
Some former SAPC students, however, felt that there was a lot of inaction and as a result left the group. Shreya Katwala, ’21, said, “I’d been working with the administration for almost a year, but it honestly felt like it was all talk and nothing ever got done. Also, a lot of the work was pushed onto the students, and we worked really hard to get the resources and stuff, but I felt like students shouldn’t have had to do all the work.”
Conant Principal Julie Nowak said that she believes some of the changes students were looking to make through SAPC early on were too significant to be made through the student campaign alone. “Working with SAPC has given us significant takeaways and feedback on how to respond to things students feel we aren’t responding to and the need to be more clear,” Nowak said. “SAPC has made clear to me that it is very important to engage students and share what we can.”
Overall, students urged for sexual education to be implemented into Wellness curriculum, for sexual violence prevention to be added to future board meeting agendas, for tangible steps of action, and for more transparency between the district and community regarding their handling of sexual violence.
“I would like to see this topic addressed at future board meetings, I’d like to see more transparency, I’d like to see more student feedback on education and policies that affect them,” Rajesh said.
Large also called for the Board of Education and administration to remain involved in the discussion on sexual violence and to make it clear to the community and student population that they are actively addressing student concerns on the issue.
“This past summer, when the Instagram account that I know you are all very aware of, ‘@alettertod211,’ gained huge traction by sharing stories of victims all over our district, it disappeared without a trace after we received some borderline threatening comments at our first SAPC meeting about it,” Large said at the board meeting. “Sometimes I wonder what happened there, and I’m sure some of you know. I implore you to stop avoiding the discussion of these issues. The community never heard a response to that account or the stories it shared.”
The Board of Education’s response
In response to the student public comments made that evening, board member Kimberly Cavill requested that an agenda item be added for a presentation on “violence prevention.” The board unanimously approved Superintendent Lisa Small’s initiative to place the presentation as an agenda item for the March 18 board meeting.
The presentation was created by administrators, Wellness department chairs, and Student Services department chairs from D211 schools. It described the district’s proactive approach to sexual misconduct and procedures when reporting and investigating a claim. The presentation concluded with goals of collaborating with outside organizations and establishing a D211 wellness committee, an initiative first proposed during the February board meeting.
Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Joshua Schumacher told the Crier that the district is currently in the process of forming the committee made of staff and students. The group will discuss sensitive topics, such as sexual assault, to provide input for the district. “We will continue to improve the Wellness curriculum and work with the Student Services department to strengthen connections between students and teachers,” Schumacher said.
Board members followed the presentation with questions and recommendations to the curriculum. Board member Kimberly Cavill said, “I expect information about our [sexual assault] policies to be integrated into our Wellness curriculum, and I expect that information to be accessible to all students. We have improvements to make in both of those areas.”
Shortly following the February board meeting, Board member Mark Cramer made public comments on Facebook stating the students’ comments at the meeting were “identical in language and theme” and claimed “[2021 D211 Board of Education candidate Tim] McGowan is manipulating HS students to make false claims.” All comments have been taken down by the post’s moderator; however, screenshots of the comment thread are posted on the Instagram account @d211forjustice.
In the same posts, Cramer stated that it is a “huge issue” and the Board of Education and administration needed to act and be re-evaluated “IF there is systemic unchecked Sexual Violence in D211.”
Students replied to his comments on the Facebook post, responding that it was a district-wide, student-led initiative separate from candidate McGowan’s election campaign. “All 11 of us went together so we wouldn’t feel uncomfortable being around the same adults who deliberately ignored us,” one student commented. “The only reason we ever had to speak out is because the board is entirely unaware of issues such as sexual assault which harm the student body.”
“It is not [a] question of IF there is systemic sexual violence among the district–because there IS a huge sexual violence issue in District 211,” another student said.
Cramer did not respond to two email requests from Crier editors asking for clarification on his social media comments.
In response to the student public comments during the Feb 22 board meeting, Dr. Small said, “I feel that [the students] were very strong in their voice of saying, ‘We want to partner with people who want to listen to us.’ That is one step that needs to be taken very quickly and can be taken very quickly to make sure that our perspective or perception of the issue is very clear and understanding compared to what [students] are experiencing.”
According to Small, school administrators have followed up with each student who spoke during the public comments at the board meeting for a one-on-one conversation to identify the possible need for additional help, support, or investigation.
How does Title IX fit in?
While students at the board meetings have stated that it is difficult to find information on who their Title IX coordinator is and that there is a need for more Title IX transparency, Nowak said she believes “there is a misunderstanding regarding Title IX.”
Title IX is a federal civil rights law, passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex-based discrimination, including sexual assault, in any federally funded school or education program. Title IX was recently updated with new changes, taking effect last year. “Sexual assault is not always connected to Title IX,” Nowak said.
Similarly, Schumacher said, “There is potential that a case might not fall under Title IX. [Title IX] is complicated.”
The jurisdictional reach of the new Title IX regulations mean that there may be situations of off-campus sexual assault that would be covered under Title IX, though this is only possible if they are tied to a school’s “education program or activity.” Sexual assault that occurs at an off-campus school function is also covered under Title IX; however, sexual assault that occurs at a student’s party, for example, is not covered under Title IX.
Non-covered cases are investigated using a similar procedure as Title IX, but they are less specific and may require “more pieces of communication,” according to Schumacher.
The outcomes students may expect from reporting incidents of sexual assault to school officials are not necessarily the same outcomes required by Title IX. The requirements established by Title IX pertain to the systematic response of schools when sexual assault is reported, including staff training, not the investigation and disciplinary outcomes or results of individual cases.
“I have no problem being transparent about who the Title IX coordinator at our school is,” Nowak said. The Title IX Coordinator in regards to sexual assault at Conant High School is Assistant Principal Mark Langer. Langer is identified as the school’s Title IX coordinator on page 10 of the 2020-2021 student calendar handbook, which also provides more information on Title IX and sexual harassment policies. According to Nowak, D211’s Title IX coordinator, Eric Wenckowski, serves as the Title IX coordinator in regards to gender equity in activities and athletic opportunities for the whole district.
Langer’s role as the Title IX Coordinator is to oversee the systematic procedure of the school’s response, known as the Title IX Grievance Process. “[Langer’s role] is purposefully somewhat removed from the therapeutic [and investigation processes],” Nowak said.
Due to Langer’s appointment as Fremd High School Principal, taking effect next school year, the role of Title IX Coordinator will be transferred to Jeannette Ardell, Conant Assistant Principal and lead student discipline coordinator, who is currently involved in Conant sexual assault investigations as a Title IX Investigator.
District 211 staff have received training from a lawyer who specializes in Title IX. Disciplinarians regularly meet with district supervisors to collaborate and stay consistent with response protocols. Staff members have undergone training during Institute Days, and additional recent meetings have been spent discussing Title IX and sexual harassment, such as addressing how to identify and intervene in situations.
“Awareness is really important; prevention is even more important,” Nowak said.
What do students need to know about reporting sexual assault?
According to Nowak, students should report sexual assault to their guidance counselor, social worker, or administrator in their team room; however, all staff members are required by state law to report suspected child maltreatment as mandated reporters. Based on U.S. Supreme Court precedents, school personnel will be held liable when someone who has knowledge that sexual assault is occurring or has occurred exhibits deliberate indifference to rectifying the situation.
The school and district also promote the Anonymous Safety Concern Form (found on the school homepage or app on students’ iPads) as another method to report sexual assault. Individuals can also use the District 211 Title IX Sexual Harassment Formal Complaint Form, available on the district’s website under the Title IX Information webpage. At the March board meeting, the board discussed changing the language of the reporting page to help students feel more comfortable using it.
Students can access their guidance counselor by visiting the team room, via email, or by calling (847) 755-3600. “Speaking to an administrator, trusted adult, or friend is the most important thing so we can get the case started,” Small said. “We put forms [on the district website] because we’re required by law to have them, but students just need to reach out to someone.”
Administration has several protocols in place to support and protect survivors, but it is also obligated to treat all parties equally and stay unbiased so the investigation can be completed through Title IX. “We know that a large percentage of sexual assault reports are accurate,” Nowak said. “But there are due process rights.”
When a student comes forward with an incident, multiple guidance counselors and trusted adults in the building are involved to support the process.
According to Nowak, following a report of sexual assault, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services and D211 administration is contacted, and the school must work with parents, as most students are minors. Details about the event, such as the location and time, are recorded. Administrators trained in investigation and questioning methods interview the survivor, witnesses, and the perpetrator. Social media is also used as a tool for verifying information. If necessary, the administration partners with the police to investigate.
The administration looks for a “nexus [link] to the school,” such as the event happening on school grounds or during school events, as it gives them more control in the case. Events that occur outside the school will still be investigated, though the administration has less control.
Perpetrators are examined by the school administration for violation of school policy. If there is a violation of school policy, perpetrators are punished, and can be suspended or expelled in some cases.
However, administrators cannot discipline students for events outside of school and cannot always suspend or expel students. The Illinois School Code states that “school boards may not institute zero tolerance policies by which school administrators are required to suspend or expel students for particular behaviors.”
All reports made to the school result in an investigation from the school administration; however, a police report must be filed in order for police to conduct a criminal investigation. The school will consult students and help them determine if they want to file a report to the police and press charges, but students can always file a report directly to the police without consulting the school administration.
Conant Police Consultant and Hoffman Estates Police Officer Timothy Stoy said, “Students should go to the police if the school isn’t directly involved at first, and the case will be forwarded to the detective division. I would inform the school of the report to make sure we’re on the same page.”
If convicted of sexual assault, offenses will go on the perpetrator’s juvenile record, which stays with them until they turn eighteen. The record, however, cannot be used against them as adults for future punishments or court cases.
School administrators are not directly involved in criminal investigations, which are only conducted by the police. However, they will engage the police and assist them with the information they have from the interviews they conduct separately.
According to Stoy, an investigation is deemed inconclusive, or unfounded, when there is a lack of evidence or the survivor does not want to go forward with the investigation. A report is still filed and can be reinvestigated if more evidence is found or a witness comes forward in the future.
Additionally, students have the right to confidentiality, and it is the school’s responsibility to protect all involved, including the alleged perpetrator. The school cannot share information about any cases or specifics about punishments, even to the other individuals involved.
“The outcome isn’t always what the victim and others want,” Nowak said. “How we respond is something we cannot share, which can be perceived as a lack of transparency.”
How does the school support student survivors?
The intention of the school’s response is to approach the issue from a more therapeutic lens, Nowak said. The school is responsible for providing students with resources, access to therapy within school, referrals to therapy outside of school if necessary, and guidance as students navigate the process.
School officials also help students determine whether to report to their guardians and/or law enforcement. “We take this seriously,” Ardell said. “In every meeting I’m in, every initiative is driven by the fact that we care about our students. It’s important for students to know that we’re here to listen and that we want to support their social and emotional wellbeing.”
After a student reports sexual assault to the school, a safety plan is created for the survivor to help them heal and cope from trauma. This includes schedule changes so they can remove engagement with the alleged perpetrator during the school day, identifying triggers that could occur during the day, establishing a plan to deal with triggers, having access to a school therapist, and continuing the investigation.
A safety plan is similarly created for other individuals involved, such as witnesses. “Something we talked about this year was working on supporting witnesses,” Ardell said. “They’re also traumatized and need levels of support.”
Safety plans are also created for perpetrators, if necessary. Ardell said that though it may be frustrating for some students, everyone, including perpetrators, are entitled to equal protection under Title IX.
What changes are being encouraged by SAPC and the administration?
“Our initial goal was to educate juniors and seniors before they left for college,” Large said. “Since then, we’ve met with the Wellness department to discuss areas or lessons that can be clarified or improved, such as victimization and how to not be a bystander.”
Nowak said the lessons pertaining to assault and harassment have been in place for the last two years, ever since the transition from health classes to wellness curriculum; however, the Wellness department at Conant is working towards human development and sexuality units that are more in-depth, and possibly teaming with the school nurse and law enforcement officers to approach the topics from medical and legal lenses as well.
“Sexual assault is an uncomfortable, heavy topic, and it’s important to talk about,” Large said. “People don’t know a lot about it, but we need to have open discussions and education in safe spaces.”
“As an administrator, mom, and female, I was very proud [of the students who spoke during the board meeting’s public comments],” Nowak said. “What I saw at the board meeting helped to clarify what the SAPC needs and their call for systemic impact.”
Administration has said that they recognize that reporting sexual assault can be uncomfortable and scary for students, and they are striving to make the school a comfortable environment for students to safely report.
For April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, SAPC is carrying out an awareness and prevention campaign. Events planned for the month include a social media campaign, an SAPC speaker night, and National Denim Day. On April 30, Conant will conduct a Sexual Assault Prevention Month Panel, open to all staff, parents, and students. The panel, including Erin’s Law founder Erin Merryn, experts from Northwest CASA and Kenneth Young Center, and a Title IX Attorney, will provide important information regarding sexual assault awareness and prevention.
“Conant’s SAPC is spreading awareness and recognizing Sexual Assault Awareness Month, inspiring future movements in the district,” Schumacher said.
In addition to SAPC’s April campaign, Nowak said the school is planning to utilize the WeCare campaign and future extended second period lessons to educate students on what to do when they have concerns or want to report sexual assault, and to address what the school can and cannot do regarding alleged sexual assault.
Above all, district and school administrators have emphasized and reiterated the importance of communication between administration and students.
“If they need help, they need to reach us. We can’t do anything if we don’t know. We need to have those connections, and students need to reach out,” Small said.
“Some students don’t feel empowered or have the right connection to say something. [Our response is], ‘Where did we miss that? Where are we not making that connection?’” Small said. “There has to be some connection to get students to have the right support and on the right pathway.”
Large agrees that the relationship must continue to be improved. “I still think that there’s a lot of work to be done connecting administration to the general student body, specifically with a focus on really improving our relationship with them so that needs can be properly addressed,” Large said.
Still, Large told the Crier she is hopeful for the future. “I think that the administration is trying their best to address student concerns. I’m foreseeing some great changes at Conant within the next few years.”