"I didn't really think something like this could happen here," East High School senior Chloe Czachor said.
It's early May, just weeks after two boys at Czachor's school were arrested for allegedly raping a girl in a bathroom after school. East not only had the challenge of trying to heal from a serious alleged crime on school grounds, but also saw mixed signals coming from district leadership.
Joe Balles, the Madison Metropolitan School District's head of security, said in a TV interview 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."
Though Balles apologized for what he called poor word choice, students like Czachor and her classmates at East and other high schools now are working to create a campus culture that doesn’t tolerate sexual assault.
"In an event like this that is so terrible, it hopefully wakes people up to the problems in our schools and lets people know that we need a lot more help than we're getting from the district," Czachor said.
Since the East incident, as well as alleged sexual assaults reported at La Follette High School weeks later, student groups across Madison's high schools are demanding changes. These students, who are growing up in the #MeToo era, want school officials to not only push back against sexual assault and rape culture in Madison schools, but to revamp and expand MMSD's sex-ed curriculum while making it more consent-based.
East's Gender Equity Club released a petition with more than 250 signatures last month asking the district to take more action. Staff at East released a letter making similar demands. In its April 29 meeting, the Madison School Board released a statement emphasizing its commitment to creating safer environments for students following the sexual assaults.
“It’s very clear to us that students have the greatest potential to drive and shape the culture in our schools, so it’s critical that we partner with them because this message is much stronger when it comes from peers,’’ said Jay Affeldt, the district’s director of student behavioral, physical and mental health.
At the same April meeting, students from Memorial High School's Teal Ribbon Club, which promotes sexual assault awareness, told the board they want to see MMSD better inform students on how to file a Title IX complaint and other procedures to take if an assault occurs. Students also want policies put in place that would remove alleged perpetrators from being in the same classrooms and same school as survivors.
Superintendent Jen Cheatham met with the Gender Equity Club at East during the first week of May to hear students' concerns, which ranged from curriculum issues to MMSD's response or lack thereof to the incidents over the past month.
Cheatham said she is committed to working with students on these issues, adding their input and leadership “will make the district’s work stronger.”
As they push for changes, students said that they shouldn't have to do this work.
"It's really saddening because it shouldn't be the students' problem," said Annabel Stattelman-Scanlan, an East student. "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."
OUTDATED HEALTH CURRICULUM
At the top of students' minds is how to revamp the health curriculum. They said sex and relationships should be taught in a way that is more inclusive to LGBTQ+ issues and focused on consent. A primary avenue to get there is starting the conversations at a much younger age.
"By the time we begin learning about the dangers of drugs and sex during our sophomore years of high school, many people had already began engaging in those behaviors. If we begin to encourage consent culture, healthy habits, and taking control of one’s own body and rights at a young age, our youth would be far more knowledgeable and responsible," Memorial sophomore Maggie Di Sanza said.
Currently,elementary school students begin to learn about human growth and development by focusing on changes of puberty, while middle school students learn about reproduction more thoroughly as well as prevention of STIs and HIV. Ashley Riley, a district physical education, health and wellness coordinator said in an email Wednesday that the human growth and development curriculum is aligned with the National Sexuality Education Standards and the Center for Disease Control's Health Education Curriculum Assessment Tool. The curriculum before high school is focused more on puberty as opposed to consent, according to Ariel Haber-Fawcett, a student at East.
"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 said. "Nobody takes it seriously and to a lot of people, it's a required joke class that nobody needs to work hard in."
In many cases, students still leave these classes not taking the topics seriously, some said.
"In my health class at Memorial High School, we covered sexual assault for the whole of a single day," Lauren Duhr said. "This is outrageous, as many people still left the class making rape jokes and pursuing harassing behaviors."
District officials said that while the health curriculum is strong from pre-K to eighth grade, there’s a gap for freshmen that could be filled as soon as next year.
“We feel that our curriculum is strong up through eighth grade, but also recognize that in health, which is only a sophomore year thing, most of our high school freshmen leave their middle school experience and go into the high school culture where we don’t do anything formal in terms of talking about consent and sexual assault,” Affeldt said.
“Students are helping us put together how we better communicate what’s already in place, and also how we put together more of a campaign beginning in elementary school and going up through high school to help students understand what consent really means, looks like and sounds like,” Affeldt said. “I think ultimately we want to get to a point where we are more transparent about what’s in place and address those gaps that do exist in our curriculum.”
Students at East are working with Principal Mike Hernandez to expand discussions of consent throughout the high school curriculum, which could include consent and rape culture training being instituted with freshmen orientation, as well as additional lessons happening during the allotted homeroom time that students have every Monday.
"East is better than a lot of other schools in this regard, but there's still a lot of work that can be done," Czachor said. “Much of the things we learn are a lot more technical and make it sound like sex is a scary thing you shouldn't do or is wrong."
East is also working with Domestic Abuse Intervention Services to pilot training on sexual assault, consent and bystander intervention this spring for its athletic coaching staff and players, which Hernandez said will hopefully expand to the rest of the high school staff.
Shannon Barry, the executive director of DAIS, said the agency is in conversations with Hernandez about starting a Men Encouraging Nonviolent Strength Club at East, which is offered at the other comprehensive high schools in Madison.
Teachers and staff are looking to find ways to include consent education into everyday curriculum beyond health classes. Topics such as sexual assault, for example, often come up in history or English classes. But how to have deeper conversations about assault and consent can be challenging.
"When we had staff circles after the incident, I was really inspired by the fact that we had over 40 staff members who really wanted to be a part of the process, and are ready to do the deep work to really transform our culture," said Sarah Elmore, a teacher and counselor at East who advises the the Gender Equity Club. "And I think often teachers want more training especially since we are often bystanders in terms of what we see in the halls and how kids are treating each other.
“We don't necessarily always know how to best intervene in situations, and then teachers end up becoming quiet bystanders instead of leaders who can help shape the climate more clearly. I think there are windows we can tap into with the curriculum to break down those barriers," Elmore said.
Hernandez said his staff has to find ways to integrate this work alongside efforts to promote anti-racism in East's curriculum and classrooms.
"We've been trying to make the connections needed to reach the people who might tune themselves out of these conversations if they don't see themselves represented in the conversations," Hernandez said. "You cannot be practicing anti-racism if you're not a practicing feminist. Those issues are intertwined and you cannot be one or the other, you have to be an advocate for both. I have a fear that there are people who opt out if they don't see themselves in that."
For many students, the health curriculum needs to be more inclusive and not just focus on straight couples.
“Many students who take health classes are a part of the LGBTQ+ community and should not be treated as others or abnormal in the classroom,” said Jace Liu, a student at Memorial. “The curriculum needs to stop treating gay sex and transgender identities as an afterthought. It should no longer be ‘straight couples… and the occasional gay couples’ but rather couples of all sorts being treated as normal.”
Liu said he’d like to see more than a single day committed to explaining issues LGBTQ+ people face.
Part of being inclusive includes promoting menstrual equity as well, according to Di Sanza.
“In higher level health classes, we no longer need to speak about the details of menstruation and periods; however, we do still need to address them,” Di Sanza said. “Instead of focusing on who experiences them and how to deal with them, we should be making it clear that we should respect people who menstruate, and menstruation itself.”
Students at East are looking to the district to develop a more inclusive and modern curriculum.
"This should not only be done at the school level," said Stattelman-Scanlan, one of the East students in the Gender Equity Club. "Yes, we can have this at East, but what about the middle schools that feed into East? What about the elementary schools, the preschools, or the schools we play games against in athletics? We've got an amazing start here with all the people working with us, but it's not going to go anywhere unless we go bigger."
There’s also a desire to not have work fall solely on the shoulders of women and girls throughout the district.
“It’s important that this effort not be exclusively led by women, and it’s important that boys and men are also showing up and helping to make the change,” Cheatham said.