My school has always prided itself on its open and caring community, as well as the support it gives its students beyond the classroom. However, the one topic that has never been as widely discussed as much as other topics such as racism or even mental health, is sexual assault and rape.
Growing up, I was privileged enough to have only attended independent private schools, and during that time, I have never heard any school leaders directly acknowledge sexual harassment and assault claims that are reported at school. Even when certain administrators and teachers have been directly called out on social media or students are forced to report on their peers, it has always been an issue that my school covers up quickly and quietly, and sometimes it is just swept under the rug.
Ileana Jimenez’s intersectional feminism class is one of the most well-known classes at my high school and it is public knowledge that this class is often full and hard to switch into, which I was lucky enough to do during my senior year. I knew from past assemblies that this class hosts every year, that this course focuses on heavy topics, many of which the administration tries to keep out of the assemblies, but going into my actual taking of the class, I never expected to be affected the way I have been.
At one point in the term, we watched Brett Kavanaugh’s opening statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2018 when Christine Blasey Ford testified that he sexually assaulted her when they were in high school in Bethesda, MD. As we watched his opening statement, he laughed and talked about his wife and two daughters. I never heard him address the allegations against him once. At the end of that class, Ileana said that we would be extending the conversation about rape culture from larger political structures to schools. At the close of class, she let us know that the content of the documentary that we were watching next might be disturbing and perhaps even triggering for some people in the class.
Roll Red Roll follows the heartbreaking story of a girl who was raped by two members of a Steubenville, OH high school football team while she was unconscious. The events of the night played out in multiple locations, and initially, the police had a very hard time figuring out exactly what happened. One local blogger, Alexandria Goddard, was able to find archived tweets between all the involved students and through her online sleuthing, she was able to figure out how the rape happened that night.
As our class watched this documentary in silent horror, I had to step out several times throughout the class because as a survivor of sexual abuse, I felt completely alone. Following class, news traveled around school that we had watched this film, and for the next several days, I overheard conversations focused on the documentary. I heard comments such as the following:
“That’s so sad, thank God I don’t live in Ohio.”
“No one even talks like that anymore.”
“Why would they watch that, it’s from a while ago.”
What shocked me the most about what my peers were saying was the fact that last summer of 2020, the majority of our school was following an account called @shareyourstoriesnyc. This is Instagram account where people can anonymously submit stories of being sexually harassed or assaulted. During that summer, I saw over 10 posts a day, each one as heartbreaking as the next. I also watched as people in our school were directly called out on a post on this account, both faculty and students. So this year when I heard my peers discussing that they’re thankful they don’t live in Ohio but are also friends with people who have been accused of rape publicly online, it made me realize how willfully ignorant and forgetful some communities that call themselves “progressive” really are.
That summer of 2020 was a transformative one for me. In late June, I was hanging out with a group of friends that I had known since preschool. We all joked and laughed as friends always did. It had gotten late and there were only four of us left. Two girls lived close to the park we were in and had also gone to after school every day. They said that they were running back to their apartment to get something to drink and they asked if those of us remaining wanted to come, but this other guy and I were having fun and said no.
They were gone for 25 minutes and those were the worst of my life.
In those 25 minutes I was attacked by someone I had considered one of my closest friends.
I never told those two girls what happened because I don’t know what they would do with the guilt of having left me there. The next day I saw his mom walking with his dog. She knew we had been together the night before and asked me if I had a fun night. I laughed and agreed.
My story is one of millions. It is a snowflake in an avalanche. But the avalanche isn’t made visible or real in the independent school world of New York City. It seems that when we hear about these stories, they are either about celebrities or about a campus rape far away or in a rural or suburban area stereotyped as conservative or Republican or “narrow-minded.”
Even though I may live in a “woke” and liberal city, people are still sexually assaulted and attacked every day. The only difference is, we’ve never had a documentary made about both public and private school girls growing up in New York. In other words, sexual violence is happening to us but it is invisibilized. Independent private schools in NYC need to start holding themselves, their students, and faculty responsible for the increasing rates of sexual harassment, assault, and rape that teenage girls are experiencing and make the invisible visible.