Gender Equity Club East High School

Students and staff advisers in Madison East High School's Gender Equity Club. The club collected more than 250 signatures last month for a petition calling on MMSD to take more concrete, direct action to respond to alleged sexual assaults that have occurred in Madison schools, including East. 

The news that two boys were arrested last month for allegedly raping a girl in a bathroom after school at Madison’s East High School — followed by reports of additional alleged sexual assaults at La Follette High School — elicited reactions ranging from unacceptable to inspiring.

Unsurprisingly, the inspiring end of that spectrum has come almost entirely from students.

A recent article by Cap Times education reporter Negassi Tesfamichael shared a variety of concerns, plans and requests from a group of students that has decided the status quo is not enough when it comes to encouraging healthy relationships and preventing sexual harassment and assault.

The students’ requests are more than reasonable. They want curriculum and programs that encourage consent, do more to recognize LGBTQ relationships, and empower victims of assault to seek remedies from the school district.

They shouldn’t have to ask. But the district should listen. And state lawmakers should pay attention, too.

“It’s really saddening because it shouldn’t be the students’ problem,” East student Annabel Stattelman-Scanlan told Tesfamichael. “It shouldn’t be our job to ensure the culture of our schools is one of consent, and it shouldn’t be our problem to change the policies and make sure that they have been changed appropriately.”

Regardless of where that burden should fall, students are doing the work. And they should be applauded for doing it.

After the alleged assault at East, the school’s Gender Equity Club rounded up more than 250 signatures on a petition and a group of staff members released a letter, each seeking a stronger reaction from the district than was originally given.

They had good reason, given that Madison Metropolitan School District head of security Joe Balles’ initial response was to say that Madison’s schools “are full of kids, and kids will be kids. As terrible and tragic as that incident sounds, I would just ask that people just be patient. Our schools are very safe but there are incidents that are going to happen from time to time.”

Balles apologized for his “poor word choice,” but the damage was done. Students like Ariel Haber-Fawcett, who wrote a letter to the editor about his words, were left feeling that the district’s head of security “does not believe it to be important to take action to protect students from future sexual violence.”

But instead of complaining among themselves, they got organized and took action. And it’s not just East students. A group of Memorial High School students asked the School Board to give students more information on the proper steps to take when an assault occurs. Students also want the district to implement policies that would prevent an alleged assailant from attending classes with a survivor.

Students argue that MMSD’s health curriculum should start sex education discussions at an earlier age, and that the curriculum should place an emphasis on consent.

“The fact that we don’t learn anything about consent and other things related to sex until 10th grade is troubling to me, and even then it’s only for a brief period of time,” Haber-Fawcett told Tesfamichael.

Considering that 16.5 percent of boys and 14 percent of girls report being sexually active by 10th grade, according to the 2017 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Haber-Fawcett is right. It is troubling.

Other improvements students are seeking include an expansion of curriculum to include more discussion of LGBTQ relationships and more efforts to normalize menstruation.

Early responses from the district are encouraging.

The board released a statement last month emphasizing its support of “every person’s right to be safe at school,” which was a good first step.

MMSD director of student behavioral, physical and mental health Jay Affeldt told Tesfamichael it’s “critical” for district officials to partner with students to improve the culture, and outgoing Superintendent Jen Cheatham recently met with students and pledged to work with them.

East Principal Mike Hernandez is also working with students to find ways to improve the school’s curriculum, and with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services to start offering training to athletic coaching staff and players.

And teachers are showing an eagerness to learn how best to intervene when they’re able.

Madison schools should continue down this road, listening to students and seeking out expertise on how best to promote safe, healthy relationships and prevent violence, abuse and harassment.

The rest of the state should take note, too.

Wisconsin once — albeit briefly — had a law known as the Healthy Youth Act, requiring schools that teach sex education to do so comprehensively, teaching students about both abstinence and safe sex. The law was repealed in 2012 in favor of abstinence-only education.

As Madison schools consider how best to teach students about healthy relationships and safe sexual activity, the rest of the state should follow suit. Every student in Wisconsin will benefit. 

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Jessie Opoien is the Capital Times' opinion editor. She joined the Cap Times in 2013, covering state government and politics for the bulk of her time as a reporter. She has also covered music, culture and education in Madison and Oshkosh.