Community forum continues discussion on sexual misconduct issues at Steamboat High School

Mark Fitzgerald, executive director of Better Tomorrow, which encompasses Advocates of Routt County, speaks Wednesday evening to an audience of community members during a forum on sexual assault and harassment.
Bryce Martin/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Pretend to be on the phone; always tell someone where you’re going; carry a weapon; never walk around alone in the dark.

Those were some of the responses women and girls shared when asked what they are told to do to protect themselves against sexual violence.

Asked the same question, men and boys in the room sat in silence for several seconds.

“This is the same response no matter what room I’m in,” said Graham Hackett, Advocates of Routt County social change program manager, who led the conversation. “We live in a patriarchy where men are awarded extraordinary privilege compared to other genders.”

The forum was centered around the recent student protest alleging sexual harassment and assault at Steamboat Springs High School and the school’s response. About 30 parents attended the forum, along with Steamboat Springs Board of Education President Kelly Latterman, Superintendent Brad Meeks and student activists Adia Clark Lay and Macy Reisman.

Clark Lay, Reisman and other students held a rally in October to raise awareness about what they described as “pervasive rape culture” at the high school.

“There are a lot of stereotypes and joking around that are not OK that happen at the high school,” Clark Lay said at Tuesday’s forum. “Some kids at our school don’t know the difference between right and wrong, and they need to be taught that.”

One male parent who attended the forum, who declined to share his name with Pilot & Today, raised concerns about the use of words such as “rape culture” and “pervasive,” as he felt “rape culture” implied a much more serious situation than what students were describing, which was mainly harassment and inappropriate comments from male students to female students.

In response, Hackett said the term “rape culture” is intentionally used to describe an umbrella of harmful behaviors that often start with harassment and can lead to sexual violence if they are not penalized or corrected quickly.

“The idea that ‘rape culture’ is being used has often been used in a way to create alarm around the condition that is being seen,” Hackett said. “Those behaviors can lead to rape.”

Marshall University, a public research university in West Virginia, defined rape culture as “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture.

“Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety,” the university’s definition adds.

The parent also asked if penetrative rape was a “pervasive” problem at the school, which he believed the message of the protest was conveying.

It was suggested by another parent that, if it is not a pervasive issue, students should change their message as to not alarm others with the specific language.

“I am not aware of penetrative rape in any way,” Hackett said. “But someone being touched, someone being harassed, I am aware of that.”

Colleen Clark Lay, Adia’s mother, explained that such language is used by younger generations because it brings awareness to a serious issue.

“What a precarious position to tell the kids who had the courage to stand up and speak their truth,” Colleen said. “Who is anyone else to tell them that they need to clarify that to make someone else comfortable?”

To address concerns about the safety of sending a child to school, Meeks said he is confident the school still provides a safe environment for students.

“A great majority of our students come to school and do the right thing,” Meeks said. “I feel we have a very safe environment at the school, but I’m not going to diminish those incidents because I know that they happen.”

In 2020, the school board hired a former FBI agent to investigate alleged misconduct at the school.

The investigation involved more than 100 in-person interviews and a review of a large number of documents. At the end of her investigation, the agent said she identified 28 cases with a sexual misconduct component over the past four years. Seven of those occurred off campus, she said, three were internet- or social-media related, and 12 involved some type of referral to law enforcement.

In response to the investigation’s findings, the district appointed a task force of teachers, administrators, counselors, parents, students and community members to make recommendations to the school about improving the prevention of and response to sexual violence.

The task force has since expanded to be a permanent and districtwide committee.

While the school has made improvements, Meeks said he believed the conversation was far from over.

“I feel good about what we’re doing, but we can always do better, and unfortunately, I think it’s something we’re going to always have to work on,” Meeks said. “People need to be taught appropriate behaviors.”

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