Sexual harassment demonstrations continue at JFK; principal vows to work with students

  • John F. Kennedy Middle School on Thursday. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROLINE O’CONNOR

Published: 6/24/2017 12:02:34 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Demonstrations to raise awareness of sexual harassment continued Friday at JFK Middle School. As about 100 seventh-graders walked to Look Park for a school trip, about 10 in the group held signs with messages like “Our bodies, our voices, our choices: respect them.”

The demonstration came a day after more than 30 students, mostly eighth-graders, held a sit-in inside the school to raise awareness of sexual harassment they say students have experienced from their peers.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable knowing people sitting next to me have been harassed and some are offenders,” said Naomi Hamilton, a seventh-grader and participant in the Friday march. “I want victims to know it’s not their fault.”

JFK Principal Lesley Wilson said the school takes any allegations of sexual harassment seriously and she is interested in working with students to address the issue moving forward.

“I do think the most important thing is hearing student voices,” Wilson said.

Hamilton, 12, said Friday’s protest, like the sit-in, mostly sought to bring the issue of sexual harassment in the school to light. She said she has not personally experienced harassment, but said her friends have been told they have a “nice butt” or been asked for their bra size.

Her father is the vice president of inclusion, diversity and equity at Smith College, Hamilton said, so she is familiar with issues of discrimination.

Students who participated in the sit-in and the march said they feel teachers and administrators do not take sexual harassment as seriously as they would like. Some students said they feel that school staff have implied that harassing behavior like butt-grabbing was normal for kids in their age group.

Saenger Breen, another seventh-grader, also held a sign Friday as she walked to the park. She said her peers think sexual harassment has to be almost as extreme as rape to count, and many don’t know a comment can be a form of harassment.

Others interviewed said there is a prevailing attitude that people their age — 12 and 13 — are too young to experience sexual harassment.

Wilson, the school’s principal, said it is not a part of the school’s belief system to dismiss harassing actions as normal behavior for kids or boys in middle school, nor is it policy to advise a victim of harassment to leave a shared classroom if they feel uncomfortable, as one student told the Gazette on Thursday.

“We honor the rights of all our students fairly,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Gazette contacted four members of the School Committee on Friday for comment on the demonstrations, including member and spokesman Edward Zuchowski.

“The Northampton School District is committed to promptly and thoroughly investigating any instance of sexual harassment,” Zuchowski said. “As is always the case, we are investigating any allegations and seeking to resolve these complaints as soon as we can.”

Raising awareness

Wilson said she met on Thursday with some students from the sit-in to discuss how to keep raising awareness of the issue in the fall, since school ends Monday. There are no concrete plans to address sexual harassment with students in the works yet, she said.

The main way Wilson said sexual harassment is addressed in school now is through eight-week health units in gym class, which students take in both seventh and eighth grade.

Hamilton said the seventh grade health class teaches students about “respect,” “integrity” and other similar concepts. She said the class addresses bullying in its traditional forms — pushing, name-calling — but sexual harassment is not mentioned.

“They don’t teach us that respect is not telling us, ‘you have a nice butt,’” Hamilton said.

Breen thinks health class education would be more effective if it addressed harassment and consent more directly.

Relationships are addressed in the eighth grade health curriculum, Wilson said, but she could not immediately answer whether or not sexual harassment is addressed specifically.

Hamilton said she feels the underlying problem leading to sexual harassment at JFK is both a lack of awareness among students about what sexual harassment is and weak consequences if one student harasses another.

She thinks boys don’t know that a comment about a girl’s body is harassment, not a compliment, and she believes education in school on what constitutes harassment would help prevent this behavior.

Hamilton also said the school’s punishment for verbal or physical sexual harassment as set out in the handbook — a one-day suspension for a first time offense — is inadequate. She thinks some kids might see it as a vacation from school for a day, not a punishment.

Wilson said the punishments laid out in the handbook are made by a committee including herself, parents and teachers, before it is approved by the School Committee. It is also created in consultation with attorneys, she said, and school officials use discretion when determining how to discipline students.

She added students are free to voice their dissatisfaction with the punishments laid out in the handbook, and the district can take their input into consideration.

Superintendent John Provost said on Thursday he appreciates that the students who participated in the sit-in were peaceful but he would have preferred they work with administrators to create an event that would “align with the educational mission of the district,” such as a teach-in about sexual harassment.

“We agree 100 percent with the students’ message, though we disagree with the method of cutting class,” Provost said.

Members of the press were not allowed inside the school to witness the sit-in and were not permitted to interview students during school hours for either of the demonstrations.

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