Thousands call for system to keep sex assault victims, attackers in separate classes

Thousands call for system to keep sex assault victims, attackers in separate classes

Churchill senior’s petition has 11,000 signatures after recent wave of allegations

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As hundreds of Montgomery County students and alumni come forward to share allegations of sexual assault and harassment by classmates, a Winston Churchill High School student has pitched an idea to make it easier for victims to avoid their assaulters in class.

Last week, Bethesda Beat reported that MCPS and the county police department are investigating dozens of claims by students at schools across the county of sexual assault and harassment. The allegations surfaced on Instagram pages, often naming the accused and posting their pictures.

The names of the girls (and some boys) who have made allegations have been kept anonymous.

There are many immediate concerns. Among them, investigating the allegations and providing support to victims.

Churchill senior Phoebe Chambers, though, is approaching the issue differently.

On Friday, Chambers created an online petition requesting MCPS create a scheduling tool that would prevent sexual assault victims and the attackers from being in the same class. As of Tuesday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed on.

“Dr. Smith in his community message said he’s committed to creating a safe learning environment for all students. This is what that looks like,” Chambers said in an interview on Monday. “Taking the extra step to protect the victims is a necessary step to ensure a positive environment for all students.”

The tool would be built into MCPS’ class scheduling system, Chambers said. Counselors and administrators would be able to “make a note” that two students shouldn’t be together in classes, and the system would flag the students’ schedules if they were planned to be in the same class. School staff members would have to find a resolution to the conflict.

If implemented, Chambers envisions the system operating on an honor system, in which students would self-report conflicts to their school, even if they do not file a police report.

Often, people are not comfortable reporting a sexual assault or rape to police. Forcing them to file a report so they can be separated from someone who assaulted them is unfair, Chambers said.

There is no provision in her proposal for school officials to vet objections first before acting on them.

Chambers said she believes “nobody would go out of their way to abuse the system to not be in a class with someone they just don’t like.”

“I also think victims will be more comfortable coming forward,” she said, “if they see action is being taken, because you hear so often people say, ‘What’s the point if nothing is going to happen?’ With this movement, if counselors and administration deal with it effectively, it sends a message that, ‘We believe you, we see you, and we will do what it takes to make you safe.’ ”

Now, MCPS works with students to rearrange schedules if students report they are in a class with someone who sexually assaulted or harassed them. Chambers’ goal is to prevent the interaction before it happens.

MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala wrote in an email Tuesday morning that it is a “very interesting concept” and staff members are looking into the idea.

“Our top priority is to ensure the safety of our students and so we most certainly will be looking into any potential enhancements to our efforts to ensure their well being,” Onijala wrote.

Chambers said she has received overwhelmingly positive feedback about her idea, but some have questioned how the school district would handle a case in which two students’ schedules were flagged as having a conflict for a class not offered in multiple time slots. Chambers doesn’t have an easy answer, but said case-by-case determinations at the school level could handle such problems.

Next, Chambers said she plans to present the petition and her idea to the school board in July and possible county government officials. If the model is successful, it could be a model for other school districts in the state and across the country, she said.

“When this has happened to you, it’s such a traumatizing experience,” she said. “No matter if it’s considered something minor by other people, being in that environment with that person, it’s a distraction. I see all these movements to get cellphones out of classes, but if we’re talking about distractions, we need to remove these kinds of distractions, too.”

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com

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