Opening up the conversation

Zoraya King, Staff Reporter

Sequoia High School, “a Place of Friends,” has contributed to the silencing and dismissal of sexual harassment. Our school that prides itself on its safe and supportive motto needs to take more action on protecting students and listening to victims.

Sexual harassment is a form of behavior that is rooted in sexual remarks and actions, most commonly towards women, according to RAINN, a website dedicated to assault information and relief. Sexual harassment manifests in many forms, one of which is catcalling. This variety of sexual harassment is classified by small and quick remarks with sexual or demeaning connotations. Oftentimes, catcalling occurs by strangers and is a fast interaction, but has long-lasting effects on the victim.

Sexual harassment stories

Many woman-identifying and female-presenting students have attested to having been catcalled by strangers or even by students near and on Sequoia’s campus.

“I’m on the cross country team and I’ve noticed a pattern of specifically men looking or saying random things to me and the girls I run with,” said sophomore Alex Parker Rogers. “One guy said something like, ‘you better run faster if you’re gonna beat the boys!’”

Even while running in her own neighborhood, Rogers reports that she still experiences feelings of unsafety.

“One time when I was running alone, a car pulled up to the sidewalk and stopped for a minute before a masculine voice yelled, ‘last place!’ at me, followed by other laughter from inside the car,” Rogers explained. “Kinda funny, but I got scared knowing the car was almost at a stop close to where I was running and [was] full of young men.”

Students that walk to and from school sometimes hear sexually driven comments or have noticed body language that suggests similar intentions.

“I felt unsafe a lot while walking. I’ve definitely been catcalled,” said junior Rowan Jones, a student who wishes to remain anonymous for their own safety and comfort. “A few times they’ve been like, ‘hi sweetheart,’ or, like, commenting on what I’m wearing when they’re driving fast which is really weird.”

Even with Sequoia’s Unaliyi motto, students at our school have turned against each other and contradicted the slogan that we so strongly stand for.

“Sometimes around Sequoia, like, because there have been Sequoia students who have catcalled me and said weird, horrible things about my body to me, I can feel unsafe, even in ‘safe’ spaces,” expressed Jones.

The impact

The ramifications of sexual harassment, and its more common derivative of catcalling, have severe negative effects on a students’ mood and performance in school settings.

“It definitely would very negatively affect my day, I don’t think I would be able to, like, do work or really focus on anything,” said Jones. “I would definitely go and talk to someone but it would just kind of ruin my day and probably the days after when I was sort of dealing with the aftermath of it.”

Judy Romero, a Teen Resource Center (TRC) specialist at Sequoia, works to help support and aid Sequoia students who are in need. Romero has heard stories and reports from students on sexual harassment and has seen firsthand how such cases can influence a student.

“It affects their self-esteem. It affects their self-confidence. It affects their body image. It affects their […] relationships with other students, their peer relationships,” Romeo continued. “Especially, for example, if it’s a friend and their friend group that’s making comments. Then they feel kind of stuck because they feel like, ‘oh, you know, my friends are gonna be like ‘come on, [they’re]  just joking.’”

Even outside of school, sexual harassment can affect the well-being of a person and change how they feel and act in public spaces.

“I couldn’t walk anywhere alone for a while, and I had several panic attacks while trying to walk alone, even in the middle of the day, when nobody was around and it was like I didn’t even see anyone,” Jones said. “[Walking alone] definitely has made me afraid of that feeling again, and I feel very unsafe when I do that. And it’s not just that but like all the catcalling when I’m walking, running, or all those things.”

The importance of education

Often, Sequoia students don’t know the resources our school provides and are hesitant to report their experiences.

“I know we have a sexual harassment policy, but I’m not sure if that’s only for incidents that happen on campus,” said Rogers. “Anyone who harasses someone could face school punishments like suspension or expulsion.”

“I know that there are, there’s a policy in place to deal with things like this, and sort of know kind of how the procedures go […], [But] I know that that’s not really well-known information,” said Jones.

As questioned by Rogers, the harassment policy at Sequoia can be unclear to many students. The sexual harassment policy states that it covers the sexual harassment of any students at school or at a school-related activity. Though as Jones stated and Rogers confirmed, the details and acknowledgment of the policy are unknown to many students.

The unclarity and unavailability of the sexual harassment policy was tackled by Sequoia’s Young Feminists Club (YFC) in the 2020-21 school year, gaining approval for their adaptations of the policy. Though even with their efforts, communications were cut short when students returned to campus in the spring of 2021 and Sequoia has yet to take in the YFC’s edits, resulting in the harassment policy remaining outdated. This issue is a project that the club is continuing to work towards this school year.

Additionally, an unfortunate truth finds that the majority of these victims don’t realize they have been sexually harassed until long after the incident; thus, tying into the idea that sexual harassment is not an open conversation at Sequoia.

Romeo stressed the importance of education, finding that informing students on the matter of sexual harassment can help in ending the cycle.

“Sometimes people don’t realize the impact that their behavior, their actions, their words, can have on someone. And, I think learning about that, I think, would help decrease that behavior around the school,” Romero claimed. “And because it’s just like any other issue, you have to raise the awareness for it and educate people so that they can make informed decisions. So if you are aware– so you’re educated about the impact of sexual harassment, you might think twice about what you say to others, you might think twice about saying something to a student.”

“That education piece is also really important because I want students to step forward, you know because if they don’t step forward, nothing will change,” Romero said. “If they don’t step forward, then whoever might be sexually harassing them might then sexually harass another student, right, and will continue that behavior.”

Sequoia hosts an annual health fair that focuses on providing resources and education on multiple topics, including sexual harassment. Due to COVID-19 and distance learning, the health fair was canceled. Romero cautioned that even though we are back in person this year she finds that the health fair may not even happen, limiting the education on sexual harassment.

Contemplating reporting

Although these resources are helpful and can ease the emotional distress after being sexually harassed, many students find it difficult to report their story to the school and take action against their harasser.

Here, Jones explains the challenge between wanting and supporting others to report their case, and actually having to report one themselves.

“Sometimes it feels like that’s gonna cause more stuff to happen and sometimes it’s like, I don’t know if I want all these extra [steps] to be taken. If I felt like I needed protection then I would [report it], but in some cases, it’s like– it feels like that’d be more of a hassle and a process for me to do that,” said Jones. “And even though I, of course, want everyone to report [assault cases], I can see myself being like ‘well that situation could have been worse […], I don’t know if I could identify the person, I don’t know how this would help me,’ or etc. […] But little cases of catcalling, or like bad jokes, […] that unfortunately happens to women so much.”

A second conflict that victims face is the feeling that their sexual assault story is not serious or important enough to be handled professionally by the school, and oftentimes the administration fails to take it seriously.

“The previous school I was at, the administration tried to also make me believe it didn’t happen, and specifically the counselor told me about ‘how nice of a boy he was’ and how she ‘couldn’t believe he’d ever do anything like that,’” Jones reported.

For every reason a person chooses not to report their case, Romeo stressed the importance of supporting the victim and understanding their decision.

“I would acknowledge how difficult it is and just validate their feelings. And also, find out as to what their hesitation is [with] reporting. Because, we shouldn’t assume why someone might not report, […] there might be […] reasons for that. So there’s no judgment on our part,” Romeo said.

“You know, I think it goes by each individual case that reporting it might create some initial anxiety– some initial stress about it,” Romero stated. “But eventually, I think it would be more beneficial for that person. I think they would end up feeling better […] that they spoke up, […] that this person’s going to stop, and that they have the support of the school.”

Protection Tactics

Outside of school resources, there are plenty of ways that you can protect yourself if you ever feel unsafe while alone or have been harassed by anyone. Many Sequoia students have already found strategies to defend themselves in “worst-case scenarios.”

“I don’t know, when I walk to school, like, I don’t listen to music and if I do, I only have one headphone in,” said sophomore Ella Sullivan. “My biggest piece of advice is to not go on your phone or look super distracted because that’s when you become a target to men,” she continued. “So they can see that you can’t– you aren’t aware of your surroundings. [If] you can’t hear someone approaching, then they’re more likely to do something to you.”

A professional self-defense teacher, Dawn Hofmeister, trains young individuals on how to protect themselves against strangers if they ever feel threatened. She encourages educating youth and working to help stop the cycle of all forms of harassment.

Here, Hofmeister gives her strongest tips on self-defense and explains the importance of each.

“The first one is voice, voice, voice, voice, voice,” Hofmeister repeated. “Practice using your voice, your voice is super important. […] They’re looking for a quiet, compliant target. And so if that’s not what you are, they’re not going to want to spend time on you, it’s too much work.”

“So if you think about ‘worst-case scenario,’ what are your plans? What are you equipped with to help yourself? How do you get out of that situation? Who do you call? Do you have money in a list account set up for you that you can use to get yourself home? Can you call a parent?” Hofmeister asked.

A lot of women suggest carrying self-defense items such as pepper spray, tasers, knives, etc. Although these are useful and effective tools, they have their drawbacks and can even be harmful to the user.

“We would suggest if you decide that you’re going to carry one of those things that you practice with it under adrenaline,” said Hofmeister. “Unless you practice doing some of those things under adrenaline, it’s going to be very difficult to do. So, flipping that switch and pressing that button for pepper spray, are fine motor movements. Though it’s really hard to do if you’re under adrenaline, you’re fumbling, you’re like, ‘why won’t my fingers work?’”

Effective Change

Sexual harassment is an underlying issue at Sequoia, often unheard of and muted. Though the school advocates for safety and friendship between students, we are not doing enough to protect them.

Female-identifying and presenting students can learn ways to protect themselves and maintain their own safety; however, real change starts with the education of students and actively opening up the conversation of sexual harassment at Sequoia. Additionally, We as a school need to take a bigger stance against sexual harassment and ensure that Sequoia is truly “a Place of Friends.”