Last week various media sources reported on the lawsuit filed against the Macomb School District on behalf of two female students who allege they were sexually harassed, assaulted and raped at Macomb High School and that Macomb School District Administration did nothing to make the girls feel safe or have their concerns heard. This became so problematic that they both left Macomb High School, and one eventually the town and district, to remove themselves from their perpetrator.
As of the time I wrote and recorded this commentary, the Macomb School District Administration has stated that they are looking into the allegations. But, considering that the lawsuit addresses sexual misconduct allegations and Title IX violations starting over three years ago, I am concerned that these investigations are too late.
I am a strong supporter of public education. I have spent my whole teaching career at public institutions, whether they be K-12 or higher education. I value our teachers and what they do for their students and communities. But, the allegations in this lawsuit and other ways I have seen young women and girls treated in our school district makes me concerned for the ways we teach girls to be in this world.
I am concerned with the lack of any real leadership in the district that addresses the continuing ways we minimize the experiences of young women in our community.
The statement released by the Superintendent and the President of the School Board did not at all address the claims of harassment and assault. It does not state that they value the education of girls. Instead, it states that we should respect the privacy of individuals involved and the judicial process.
Not once does this statement address the issue of the lawsuit; the assault and rape of two girls on school property. By not speaking to sexual violence, what is the district saying about how they view educational opportunities for these girls and other girls like them?
Title IX went into effect the year I was born. It is a Civil Right and prohibits discrimination based on sex. Title IX states:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
But, how does this play out in the Macomb School District? Do teachers and administrators go through Title IX training? And, how does the district handle sexual harassment complaints?
The Macomb Senior High School Handbook states that sexual harassment is a violation of State and Federal Law and defines sexual harassment in a number of ways. They do not separate sexual assault from sexual harassment. In addition, they encourage anyone who has been sexually harassed
to first seek informal resolution, when appropriate. This includes speaking directly to the harasser, informing him/her that the behavior is unwanted.
Asking a victim of sexual violence to confront their assaulter is a policy that is problematic for most sexual violence survivors. Yet, the MHS Handbook does not distinguish between wearing a “vulgar shirt” and unwanted physical contact or sexual advances. If Macomb School District valued sexual assault advocacy and training, they would realize how problematic this policy reads for victims.
But, even if changes are made to these policies, will there be real change made? How can changes be made if leadership does not swiftly address sexual violence or take immediate action? What do we do when our district continues to allow our girls to be treated in these ways without a strong and unified commitment to their safety and equality? What about the ways we single out our female students daily, when there is no threat of a lawsuit?
Yes, it is complicated. It is complex. There are many variables. But, there is also responsibility. People we know do bad things. Sexual violence and assault is difficult to deal with. It often causes the victims to struggle with issues of mental health. But advocacy should not be limited to individuals who are from families of privilege, or mentally stable, or certain genders, races, or ethnicities.
Being a human is hard. Being in this world is hard. But when you take on a leadership role it is your responsibility to listen to everyone and to make sure that the voices of youth are heard. I want Macomb School District to not only be a safe place for my children or the children of my friends. I want Macomb School District to be a safe place for ALL children. In order to do that, we need leadership at all levels to stand up and make a statement and hear our students’ voices.
This lawsuit is serious. What is being claimed that happened to the girls in this district and community is serious. But this lawsuit is also an opportunity. It is an opportunity for the district to take leadership and responsibility and assert that girls deserve the same educational opportunities as boys and adhere to district policies for all students. Our community will believe the administration’s commitment to the wellbeing, safety, and education of all students when we see it in actions, and not simply as words, too little too late, on district letterhead.
Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.