On Thursday evening, protesters from across the Atlanta metro area will gather at a school board meeting in Gwinnett County, Georgia. Their goal: to convey outrage that the school system—which is among the highest-ranked in the nation—allegedly punished a student who reported a sexual assault, as Slate reported in September.
According to the student, Peachtree Ridge High School submitted her to a humiliating ordeal after she reported being sexually assaulted by a male peer in February 2015. A complaint that the student’s family has submitted to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleges that administrators asked what she was wearing at the time of the incident and why she didn’t “bite [the assailant’s] penis and squeeze his balls.” School officials also asked the student to re-enact the assault in front of them, the complaint says. In interviews with Slate, the student’s parents described how the school put their daughter and the male student through a grueling joint disciplinary hearing, where they were asked to cross-examine each other through hired counsel. In the end, both students were suspended for engaging in sexual activity on campus in violation of the high school’s rules.
“My school punished me and made it seem like the attack was somehow my fault,” the student wrote in a statement to Slate. “For a long time, I thought maybe it was.” (You can read that statement in full here.)
Days after Slate’s report went live, the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s office announced that it would look into the 18-month-old case. DA Danny Porter said in late September that he would aim to decide next steps within 30 days. Porter told the Gwinnett Daily Post that he was struck by the involvement of a particular school resource officer—the one accused of asking the student what she was wearing and why she didn’t physically fight back. “The thing that caught our attention was the officer was a former county officer and we knew who he was and we knew he had never investigated a sex crime,” he said. Porter will meet with the victim’s family on Friday.
A group of recent Peachtree Ridge alumnae has signed up to address the school board meeting. “When I was at school there, they pushed the ‘standard of excellence,’ ” Sarah Welch, a 2014 graduate who now attends the University of Georgia and who will be speaking on Thursday, told me. “It was everywhere—every poster that came from the principal’s office.” She was floored by what she saw as hypocrisy in the school’s alleged handling of the case. Welch sent me a draft of the speech she plans to give to the school board, in which she urges:
Create a program that will teach your high school employees how to react to the knowledge of a recent sexual assault. Create a program that will prevent any future student from being asked what she was wearing. Create something that will let your teachers feel confident if a student comes forth and says, “I was sexually assaulted.” … The standard of excellence becomes a joke if this is how you treat the students you hold so highly. Hold yourselves to the same standard of excellence you pushed upon us and introduce sensitivity training to your high school staff.
The rally was organized by a student at Georgia State University, Kristen Oyler, who runs a club dedicated to addressing sexual assault on her college campus. Oyler has no personal connection to Gwinnett County, but she felt compelled to send a message to the school board and to “make sure the student feels supported,” she told me. She reached out to the student’s attorney to see if the family would welcome a public protest and got an enthusiastic response. Though the student has chosen to stay anonymous for now, her attorney, Adele Kimmel of the public interest law firm Public Justice, will read a statement of thanks that she wrote to the rally’s attendees. “For a long time, I thought nothing positive would come out of what happened to me,” she wrote in the statement, a copy of which has been provided to Slate. “Today, knowing that all of you are here to speak out for change, it makes me feel good about telling my story. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to finally be heard.”