Lilia Scudamore was scrolling through Snapchat one warm August evening.
One post stopped her cold: a former classmate writing about being sexually assaulted by a boy she knew. Then more girls posted about this same boy. Post after post came in over the next three days about the same boy or sexual misconduct by other boys. The reposting eventually became a flood.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Scudamore, a senior at East High School in Denver. But Scudamore said she also felt relief that students were comfortable enough to share their stories and that those stories were being met with support.
This wasn’t the first time there’d been allegations of sexual assault at East. Scudamore remembered one from her freshman year. A girl accusing a boy on a sports team of sexual assault. Over the years, she and her classmates heard other stories about girls not getting the support they felt they deserved when something similar happened. Scudamore’s classmate Hermela Goshu, who sits on the student council, said girls of color would especially approach her. Goshu is Black; they said they didn’t feel safe going to anyone else.
“People were coming to me asking, ‘How do I report, how do I say this?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know!’”
After school officials cautioned students that their social media posts alleging sexual misconduct could be construed as cyberbullying, the heartbreak and relief at not being alone turned to anger for many students. A few days later, about 100 students rallied on Colfax Avenue near the school to protest how their school and Denver Public Schools were handling the sexual misconduct allegations.
“We saw people from around the district noticing that this was true in their high schools as well,” Scudamore said.
She’d taken a class in constitutional law the year before. She wanted to look at the district’s policies on sexual misconduct.
“I knew how to read those documents,” she said.
She wanted to examine if the school’s and district’s policies followed Title IX, the federal equity law school districts are governed by. In what way did the policies support survivors of sexual abuse and why don’t students know about them? Why do schools respond the way they do? Scudamore wondered where to start pressing for change. She’d remembered an article she’d read in the paper about two student activists in Boulder. She reached out to them.
Scudamore and her Denver classmates would soon become part of a growing movement of high school students in California, Colorado, Maryland and elsewhere across the United States who are pushing for greater clarity in school district policies on sexual harassment and misconduct, as well as stronger sexual violence prevention education.
The problem is larger than school district policies, students say. It's also the way school administrators and mandatory reporters handle sexual assault allegations. There isn’t a sense that “this is wrong,” Goshu said.
“And the way that that's demonstrated is by the way that adults in our building choose to react to these kinds of situations and the way that, at least it seems, that perpetrators are protected and guarded from consequences to actions.”