In the United States, we have a long history of protests. In fact, the First Amendment declares, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble . . .” The protest held on Friday, March 26, 2021 was peaceful, and led by students from Haddam Killingworth High School. The subject? Sexual assault and harassment.
Hannah Laird-Hoover, who lives in Haddam and is a senior at HKHS, led the protest after experiencing sexual assault and harassment on March 12 outside of school. Though the school is investigating the incident, and Hannah filed a police report, she spoke with friends, and found that many other students had also experienced sexual assault and harassment, and they decided to bring attention to the subject. Specifically, the rally was to “raise awareness for any victims of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment (male or female) with emphasis on the prevalence of victimization under the age of 18,” explained Hannah.
“We fully support any students who have been victims of sexual harassment,” said Donna Hayward, Principal of HKHS. “When the school receives a complaint of sexual harassment, we investigate fully and in accordance with Board of Education policy.”
Hannah and other students at HKHS felt very strongly about the cause “and needed a way to express their passion” said Hannah. They planned on holding a walkout at HK, but instead they decided to turn it into a town-wide rally in support of sexual assault awareness and education, and they extended the invitation to surrounding towns.
“Our goal is to spread awareness about how present sexual assault is in our society,” explained Michael Pascucci, a senior at HKHS. “We want to inspire change and to insure this, we need to start locally. We hope this event will spark this important conversation within our community.”
Approximately 200 people attended the rally. Christine Palm, the State Representative for Haddam attended, as well as the Guidance department from HKHS. Members of Channel 3 and Channel 8 news were at the event as well, according to Hannah.
“The prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in our town has only grown since I’ve started high school,” said Mia Rubino, senior at HKHS. “It has effected how I dress, how I use social media, and the people I talk to.”
“Sexual harassment has impacted me in greater ways than words can explain,” said Kathy Melgar, another senior at HKHS. “I felt like I didn’t have a voice and only recently have I realized how powerful and clear my voice truly is. I want this rally to be the start of conversations; between friends, family, administration, etc. I want this to be the start of change and teaching children that consent should be held to its value and if it’s not a yes, then it is not consent.”
According to The Washington Post, “the [U.S.] Education Department found that reports of sexual violence at schools [across the nation] rose from about 9,600 in the 2015-16 school year to nearly 15,000 in the 2017-18 school year. That’s an increase of more than 50 percent.” They said that the numbers may be in part due to the #MeToo movement, which emboldened more people to come forward.
Unfortunately, in our country, many victims do not come forward. In this article on ABCnews.com, they talk about the reasons. “Victims are often too ashamed to come forward,” said Beverly Engel, a psychotherapist and author of more than 20 self-help books who says “shame and self-blame are central reasons why survivors of assault don’t report these crimes.” She said, “We say things like, ‘She shouldn’t have been wearing that kind of outfit, she shouldn’t have drank so much, why did she go to that party’ We find some reason to blame the victim.”
Donna Hayward said at HKHS specifically, “We have not identified an increase or trend in the frequency of reported allegations in recent years.” She went on to explain the high school’s education around sexual harassment/assault. “HKHS is proactive in educating our students on many topics and our curriculum already includes effective communication, consent, refusal skills, and teen dating violence. Our students are informed annually of our sexual harassment policy and procedures. Further, as policies are updated and/or as the need arises, certain policies are reviews and discussed with students; most recently, as students are returning to full in-person instruction. The student voice is always an important factor in our continuous improvement efforts.”
On March 23, Holly Hageman, Superintendent of Schools for Region 17, sent out an email to parents about the policies of sexual harassment at our schools because of the recent events. In part it said, “Victims of sex discrimination and/or sexual harassment are encouraged to report such claims and are guided in the process of how to file a report. . . A school’s Title IX responsibilities also include contacting the alleged victim(s) and their parent(s) to develop supportive measures, which are available with or without the filing of a formal complaint.” She went on to say that “both the middle school and high school health curricula include instruction on healthy relationships, effective communication and refusal skills, and teen dating violence.”
At the protest, several students spoke out, and people waved signs at passersby on Route 154 and Route 81. Cars honked their support. Speakers talked about how assault is normalized in our society, how a parent hands their daughter pepper spray for college, as if handing them any other college-necessary item. They also spoke about how victims need more support, both in school and out. And they want our school system to do more.
“Principal Hayward has convened a group of students and staff to meet next week to hear ideas for steps that could be taken in school to reinforce the concepts taught in Health and through Advisory,” said Holly Hageman. “We are hearing students indicating that more education would be helpful, and we are eager to do that.”
“We are hoping this event will not only inspire other schools, students, and victims, but that it will show the youth of Connecticut that if you are passionate about a cause, you need to speak up,” said Hannah. “Change will never happen if we keep waiting for someone else to act. We need to act.”
Killingworth Town Meetings April 19 - 24, 2021
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