High School Student's #MeToo Moment Silenced
Lulabel Seitz had been paying attention to the #metoo and #TimesUp movement throughout her senior year of high school. Watching young women stand up and sexual predators fall, she felt emboldened and inspired to include her #metoo moment in her graduation speech as Valedictorian of her class at Petaluma High School. Despite being told not to.
While she prepared her speech, Seitz says that both school and district administrators made it clear that she could not include any reference to sexual assault on campus. According to Seitz, one administrator told her his job was on the line, and others intimidated her by interrupting her last high school final exam to ask, "What would Stanford think?" (the school she'll attend this fall to study Math and Economics) and made veiled threats to withhold her diploma should she go off script to include anything about campus sexual assault.
Seitz herself was sexually assaulted on campus. In a phone interview, she said the only ramification for her assailant was being barred from campus when she was there, an order she says he repeatedly violated. When she brought this to the administration's attention, Seitz says they didn't take action.
A guidance counselor told Seitz she wasn't alone, there were other young women on campus with similar experiences, Seitz recounted. She was frustrated that perpetrators of sexual assault aren't immediately considered for expulsion or suspension. So on the eve of graduation, while watching speeches that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave, Seitz thought to herself, "He had way more on the line than I do. If he can do it, then I should, too."
In her speech, Seitz talked about being an unlikely high school graduate coming from a Filipino immigrant family, with a single mom and two parents who didn't finish high school. She also managed to include support for her teachers who went on strike earlier in the year to demand better wages and benefits. It was the following line that caused controversy leading up to graduation and led Seitz's mic to be cut four minutes into her speech:
"Even learning on a campus in which some people defend perpetrators of sexual assault and silence their victims, we didn't let that drag us down."
Petaluma High School Assistant Principal Deborah Richardson responded to emails regarding the censorship stating that due to privacy laws, they can't comment on sexual assault claims but that they "care deeply about the safety and well being of our students." Richardson also said that they welcome criticism from students about the district or administration and would support them being included in a speech provided "no slanderous or untrue statements" were made.
Principal David Stirrat told petaluma360.com that he was trying to keep graduation "appropriate and beautiful" by cutting Seitz off.
Seitz does not regret including the line in her speech.
"The administration sent a bad message saying they didn't want to hear about the struggles people face," she said. "You should let students talk about their problems so you can fix them rather than ignoring them and pretending they don't exist."
She has two younger sisters who eventually want to attend Petaluma High School and Seitz hopes that speaking out will make it a place she feels is safe for them.
"If nobody talks about the issues at hand, no change will be made."
The silencing of survivors like Lulabel Seitz is not new. It's the repeated stifling of discussions about sexual assault that allow people like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to violate women for decades. And students on campuses throughout the country are even more vulnerable.
"As a culture and as a society we silence victims of sexual assault all the time," said Brenda Adams, senior staff attorney for Equal Rights Advocates, a nonprofit legal organization that protects economic and educational access and opportunities for women and girls. "It's more so exacerbated for students."
Title IX and similar state-level laws are meant to keep student victims of sexual assault safe and provide a safe learning environment on campuses nationwide in the wake of an assault. Adams says that when these laws are followed, students like Lulabel can be protected.
Students are particularly vulnerable when Title IX laws aren't followed because their options are limited. In cases like Lulabel's, she could file a claim with the Office of Civil Rights prompting an investigation into the schools conduct, but at most they would receive a fine or make policy changes for future incidents, Adams said.
"It doesn't really make Lulabel whole," said Adams. "So really, her recourse is to file a lawsuit against the school."
For students, the burden of proof in these cases is "deliberate indifference" meaning that she would have to prove the administration knowingly and intentionally violated her rights. Something that Adams says is incredibly difficult to do in court and not expected if she were an employee under the same circumstances. An employee who was sexually assaulted and the case was subsequently mishandled by their employer, a lawsuit would only require them to show their rights had been violated, not to prove intent.
"What we're saying is that our employers owe more of a duty to their employees than our own schools owe to our children," Adams said. She believes that our laws should reflect the same standards for education cases as employment ones.
Students lost even more protections last year when Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education rescinded 2011 guidance on how Title IX should be implemented on campuses in sexual misconduct cases. They were replaced with interim guidelines giving schools leeway to "exercise at your discretion" according to Adams.
Equal Rights Advocates is a named plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Department of Education to get the Obama-era Guidance reinstated. They are also launching their Ending Sexual Violence in Education network this fall to provide immediate pro-bono legal advice to students like Lulabel in the aftermath of a campus sexual assault or harassment.
While the work is done to strengthen existing laws and create new ones, Adams says that we need to give survivors the space to discuss their sexual assault whether privately or publicly, like the "benign" line in Lulabel's graduation speech.
"One of the things that many people find re-empowering is to tell their story," Adams said. "When you silence victims, you also quash their empowerment which can be extremely healing. There probably were victims out in that audience who could have had a moment of knowing that they were not alone."