Sexual Violence at Stuyvesant

The influence of rape culture and systematic failures make it difficult for victims of sexual assault to get justice and come forward.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Several weeks ago, sexual harassment allegations came out against a former friend of mine. These allegations came from multiple girls and stemmed all the way back to the last school semester. The girls I’ve talked to have cited behaviors including inappropriate grabbing, invasion of private space, unwanted advances, and much more. To my horror and shock, these reported behaviors mirrored how he acted toward me as well. I had always felt uncomfortable with the way he grabbed my hips and clung to me, but I never had the guts to tell him “no” because the act of touching without consent is so normalized. Setting boundaries is often considered “rude” or “unfriendly.” One of his victims told me that she communicated with him physically and verbally to stop touching her, but he ignored this explicit message and refused to see his actions as a violation. As a result, she had to change her routes to certain classes just to avoid him. When confronted with these allegations, his excuse was “it was all a misunderstanding, and it happened so long ago. Why is it being brought up now?” More than seven people have accused him of harassment, and his behavior has not changed.

We are taught in health class that consent is important, but there seems to be a disconnect between the things we learn and how we treat others. This difference is mainly ingrained in our society through “rape culture.” Sexual violence is normalized, and the perpetrators are protected while victims are blamed for their own trauma. It is also perpetuated through the media we watch and the language we use every day. Recently, one of my friends went to a museum with four guys. She recalled feeling extremely uncomfortable when two of the guys were discussing whether they liked “big [breasts] or small [breasts].” Not only is this behavior extremely misogynistic, but it also reflects the mentality perpetrators have when they feel like they are entitled to comment on or even violate others. Stuyvesant’s dress code policy is also written from a victim-blaming perspective, with rules that say, “The length of shorts, dresses, and skirts should extend below the fingertips with the arms straight at your side.” Because of this dangerous mindset, invasive questions and comments like “what were you wearing?” or “you shouldn’t have been drinking” are uttered.

In my former friend’s case, he blamed the victims for not saying “no” to him, even though he disrespected their objections by talking behind their backs or simply ignoring them. The pervasive force rape culture applies on our society makes it even more difficult for victims to come forward, which also deeply affects male victims of sexual violence. They often feel embarrassed, unprotected, or even ashamed after getting assaulted due to the suffocating nature of toxic masculinity.

These issues are not just prevalent within Stuyvesant. They also manifest themselves in higher education and institutions. When elite institutions like Harvard, Yale, and Columbia are exposed for cover-ups regarding sexual assault, we lose faith in the system. Just this February, a lawsuit accusing Harvard Law School of ignoring sexual harassment by a professor surfaced. In another instance, Asian American author Kelly Yang experienced sexual assault as a first-year at Harvard Law School. She lost faith in the legal system after Harvard acquitted her assaulter and investigated her for “malicious prosecution” instead.

Rumors and stories regarding how sexual assault is handled in our school have also deterred many victims from filing a complaint. Under Title IX, schools are required to respond to allegations of sexual harassment and assault. In a conversation with my guidance counselor, she explained that after victims come forward with their stories, Assistant Principal of Security Brian Moran is consulted, and the school usually undergoes an online system to file reports. When asked about the procedures taken after a report is filed, Moran explained that they vary depending on the severity of the case. First, a conversation with students and parents, during which Moran and administrators listen to what the person is sharing and ask questions, would take place. The situation is “addressed, investigated, and then addressed.” Based on the circumstances, the school may work with outside organizations like the New York Police Department (NYPD) and Child Protective Services to figure out appropriate steps forward. On an administrative level, in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions can be placed on perpetrators. Depending on the severity of the infraction, victims can get orders of protection or have charges placed on their assaulters through outside bureaucracies like the courts, which can be even more complicated.

When asked why victims and advocates of victims may feel disappointed in the system, Moran said that there is a difference between assumptions of how these cases are handled versus being happy with the outcome. Moran explained that actions taken against the perpetrator, such as suspensions, are always held with a teaching instead of punitive intent in mind. Even though this mindset is respectable in a learning environment, decisions on these matters should not solely revolve around the perpetrator. The victim’s satisfaction with the outcome should be considered and weighed equally, if not more heavily than the perpetrator’s. Filing lawsuits and involving the NYPD in these matters when the victim isn’t happy with the school’s response can be another violating, lonesome, and convoluted process that the school can easily alleviate by actively involving victims in their decision-making process when it comes to consequences. There are many posters encouraging people to speak up near Moran’s office. However, these efforts may all seem performative if specific guidelines and procedures on sexual misconduct are not transparent to the student body.

Many have the misconception that the term sexual assault can only be used to describe attempted rape or rape. This notion, however, is not true. Recategorizing actions seen as bullying as sexual assault/misconduct allows more measures to be taken when it comes to inappropriate touching, violations of personal autonomy, and harassment, which are just as serious. Currently, the school is trying to alleviate these issues by holding freshman biology “push-ins,” where guidance counselors come into classes to talk about rights and responsibilities. If victims need emotional and mental help, guidance counselors check in, and Stuyvesant’s relationship with outside therapeutic services is encouraged for victims, though the school cannot mandate these services without parental consent. It is important to note that current sophomores and upperclassmen do not have these push-ins, which should be in place for all grades so that more conversations about consent, boundaries, and permission can take place. Teachers should try to hold these conversations through the literature we read in English class or the lessons we are taught in history. Teachers can also help victims feel safe by condemning misogynistic jokes and dark humor that perpetuates these behaviors.

Stuyvesant is considered one of the best high schools in the country. With this pedestal comes the responsibility to implement better ways of handling sexual assault cases that hold perpetrators accountable and make victims feel more comfortable coming forward. Administrators can start by taking another look at their definitions of sexual assault. We, as members and allies, should be mindful of the seemingly harmless dark jokes we hear or make because in the long run, they contribute to how sexual violence and personal boundaries are viewed.