Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and suicide.
Over 50 North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics students, faculty and alumni expressed their dissatisfaction with how school leaders have handled sexual assault cases in a silent protest in Durham on Tuesday.
Facing administration buildings, the students held signs that read, “I deserve to be safe at school” and “stop treating sexual assault like an inconvenience.”
Lily Lentz, Caroline Miranda and Bonnie Zhang, NCSSM seniors and campaign organizers, began the protest by discussing their demands for administration.
“We want to emphasize the point that we are not against NCSSM or anyone that we generalize as ‘administration’,” Miranda said. “We want to improve the school, for both ourselves and for future students. We want accountability, acknowledgment and action."
The campaign started in mid-April after many people came forward with negative personal experiences with the Title IX process at NCSSM, Lentz said.
The students listed their concerns and demands in an open letter to the NCSSM administration. The letter’s main grievances revolve around how the school handles reports of sexual assault and the current Title IX process, as well as how the school handles suicide attempts.
Students criticized the school for disciplining students accused of violating curfew, alcohol rules or COVID-19 safety protocols much swifter than those accused of sexual assault.
Before Tuesday's protest, the students held a silent walkout on April 25. The leaders of the movement met with the administration before and after the event to discuss their concerns.
They also began a petition demanding changes in regard to Title IX and code of conduct issues that had 330 signatures as of May 5. This is almost half of the total number of students at the school.
The students are concerned about the Title IX coordinator's possible conflict of interest. The coordinator also serves as the associate vice chancellor, the dean of students and oversees discipline in regard to the code of conduct at the school.
“The same individual handling a large portion of our disciplinary processes is in charge of all of Title IX at our school, which has allowed bias of a student's previous conduct history to interfere with the handling of sexual assault cases,” Zhang said in an email.
In addition to issues regarding sexual assault, the students are unhappy with how NCSSM handles suicide attempts and mental health issues.
“I know people personally who have attempted suicide on campus and there are not a lot of supportive measures extended to the people that do attempt but also the people that surround that person,” Lentz said.
Student experiences with sexual assault
Lauren Sweeney, a senior and residential life assistant at NCSSM who attended the protest, said that at least six of the 49 students on her hall have been sexually assaulted or raped this year.
“That is a very staggering statistic that’s honestly very problematic, and nothing has been done about any of those cases,” Sweeney said.
She felt there has not been enough substantial action taken by the administration to address the issues students are concerned about.
Catherine Vu, a senior at NCSSM, said she knows many survivors of sexual assault who have been negatively impacted by the way the administration handled their cases.
Vu is a witness to an ongoing Title IX case regarding a sexual assault at NCSSM and said that the process is moving very slowly. She wants to see changes to the code of conduct, a separate Title IX coordinator and sexual assault cases to be taken more seriously.
Lentz also noted that they are a survivor of sexual assault and had bad experiences with reporting Title IX at NCSSM. They said they ended up not filing a Title IX complaint because they felt the Title IX coordinator lacked empathy and made them uncomfortable.
Shaquana Suggs, a residential education instructor at NCSSM, said that she came to the protest to give students comfort that there will be accountability among faculty.
“I just demand that they listen actively, collaborate with the students on solutions and give us staff and faculty the tools to help support students,” Suggs said.
NCSSM administration’s response
NCSSM Chancellor Todd Roberts sent three emails to the students, parents and staff in response to the issue. The first was sent on April 25 after the walkout, the second on April 28 and the third on Thursday.
Roberts said that the school follows the federal requirements of Title IX, as well as the state’s mandatory requirement for adults to report if someone under 18 has been the victim of a sexual offense.
In the email sent on Thursday, Roberts outlined the school’s actions to keep students safe. Title IX, suicide prevention, the student code of conduct and academic support were among the things he discussed.
Regarding Title IX, he wrote, “Though confidentiality requirements mean we cannot publicly discuss how individual allegations are addressed, it is inaccurate to suggest that the school disregards or fails to take seriously any such reports.”
Roberts also said that the school is planning to add more training sessions throughout the year to better educate both students and employees about Title IX policies and sexual assault prevention.
In regard to mental health concerns, Roberts discussed the school’s counseling resources, specifically noting the increase in counseling staff, training and funding.
“NCSSM’s Counseling Services closely tracks mental health data that we are made aware of; however, the information is not publicized to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the student and their families,” Roberts wrote in the email.
Roberts said that it is important that the school leaders listen to students and provide a safe, welcoming environment for each student.
“It’s a dialogue with the students, it’s responding openly with them about what their concerns are, how we can address them, and continuing to do that as new concerns arise,” Roberts said.
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