Graphic by Julia Steiner
Reese Pike and Meredith Matz, Lance Copy Editor and Lance News Editor
More than 150 women testified against Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S. Olympic and Michigan State gymnastics teams, in his week-long trial. Nassar was accused of multiple sex crimes and sentenced to between 40 and 175 years in prison. The trial was extremely emotional for all the victims involved. Any of the people who were sexually harassed by Nassar were allowed to speak during his trial to receive closure for themselves and for justice.
According to the New York Times, when giving the sentence, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told Nassar, “I just signed your death warrant.” Due to his age, Nassar will likely die in prison. Aquilina’s statement was controversial, with some arguing that her comments weren’t professional.
With the recent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, systemic sexual harassment and abuse in many fields has been revealed. More than ever, conversations are being held about how to deal with the effects of harassment, help survivors and move forward. Due to sexual harassment being brought into focus, it is important to understand the school’s policies on the subject.
Westside school board policy number 2213 states, “The District strictly prohibits all forms of harassment on the basis of sex, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, religion, age, disability and any other protected class.”
Sex discrimination and sexual harassment are also prohibited in the state of Nebraska. Westside schools have an overarching definition on harassment for the District, included in both the student and staff handbooks.
According to the Unlawful Harassment School Board Policy, “Harassment is a form of discrimination, and includes unwelcome verbal, non-verbal, written (including electronic), graphic or physical conduct relating to a person’s protected class that is sufficiently serious to deny, interfere with or limit a person’s ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or work program or activity.”
Administrators said they hope this definition is clear enough to help foster a safe and respectful environment.
“We want our students to feel comfortable and safe enough that if they have any concern at all, they can come right to us because they know we’re going to get the bottom of it and make it a priority,” Westside communications director Brandi Petersen said.
According to Petersen, if students have a concern, they can talk to any employee as well as remain anonymous. All staff at Westside High School are considered to be mandatory reporters, whether they teachers, food services workers or administrators. This means that if a staff member hears about any sort of sexual harassment, abuse, neglect, self harm or sexual assault, they are required by law to report it, anonymously or not, to the school.
Students, as well as employees, can also file a complaint themselves. The form for this is located on the District website. There are two Title IX coordinators in the district: Enid Schonewise and Alan Bone. Schonewise deals mainly with staff concerns, while Bone focuses on students.
Title IX is defined as a “federal law prohibiting sex discrimination in educational institutions, activities and programs that receive financial assistance.”
Schools are required to have policies set in place under Title IX, which include various categories like sexual harassment, bullying, sexual violence and assault. Title IX helps to give schools an effective and efficient way of dealing with sex discrimination complaints and issues. Westside, along with every school across the nation, is required to investigate and determine as quickly as possible what happened in sexual harassment situations, as well as what to do to solve the problem. Schools are also responsible for addressing the effects of harassment.
At Westside, there are also programs in place for victims of sexual abuse or harassment. The district has a partnership with Children’s Hospital, which means students can talk to counselors there. According to Principal Jay Opperman, Westside has various connections with people and services to help both the victim and the school when these situations arise.
However, employees of the District are not required to have official training to prevent sexual harassment. Administrators said they hope the policies detailed in the handbooks are clear enough to communicate acceptable behavior. According to Petersen, this topic is also brought up during staff development days.
“[Sexual harassment] is certainly something [staff] talk about all the time,” Petersen said. “We just had professional development for all of our teachers … Those are the types of things that, when there’s a current issue, we want to stay proactive and on top of it no matter what the issue may be.”
A recent sexual harassment issue occured in December. An assistant principal at Millard South was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old female student. According to a report by the Omaha World-Herald, the school found out about the accusation through the mother of the student. A journal kept by the student was found by her parents with details about her relationship with the assistant principal. The school was notified and the assistant principal was arrested and sent to Douglas County Jail. He was charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault on a child. The minimum sentence for this is 15 years in prison.
In a similar situation in 2015, a teacher at Millard North was accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old female student. The teacher was sentenced to 32 to 60 years in prison and must serve at least 17 years before he is eligible for parole.
Punishments for sexual harassment vary depending on what school, district and state the crime occurs in. The punishment also relies on what truly happened between the people involved in the situation.
“I wouldn’t sit here and say that for any consequence on any discipline [punishment] is consistent,” Opperman said.
When a complaint or concern is received, it eventually goes to Schonewise and Bone. From there, they determine what to do on a case-by-case basis, according to Petersen. They consider who the complaint involves and how to investigate the situation. If something happens off-campus, the consequences are different. Typically, the school can intervene only if the events are affecting the school environment, but they still offer services for victims.
To ensure that a culture of respect is maintained, the district revamped their policies on sexual harassment two years ago. According to Petersen, Allison McGill, the District’s legal coordinator, looked at the policies to see if they were up to date and protecting students and staff as best as possible. Policies are the same throughout the different schools in the District. Petersen said that the school has not had to deal with many situations involving sexual harassment, but if they do, they are prepared.
“If and when they do come up, we’re ready to tackle them, but there’s no Mad Libs formula that you can follow,” Petersen said.
Overall, Petersen stressed the district’s zero tolerance for both sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
“I think the bottom line is clear,” Petersen said. “Everyone should be treated with respect.”