Steamboat High School students plan rally to protest handling of sexual harassment

Editor’s note: This story was updated at 7:45 p.m. to correct a misquote.

Maelin Moore felt uncomfortable walking through the halls of Steamboat Springs High School hearing male students make comments about her body. She felt angry when she watched a boy in her math class call female students derogatory names and tell them they were not deserving of love.

“There have been experiences where I’ve been sexually harassed, and it feels like the guys (doing the harassment) don’t even realize that they’re doing it,” said Moore, a junior at Steamboat Springs High School. “The rape culture in our school is very bad.”

To address what she and other students said they believe is a lack of appropriate response to sexual assault and harassment at the high school, Moore and several other students have planned a rally Thursday to protest the issue. Students plan to stand in front of the school from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. during parent-teacher conferences and hold signs to raise awareness about the problem.

Steamboat Springs School District hired a former FBI agent and independent investigator in February 2020 to investigate the culture at the high school related to the alleged mishandling of claims of sexual harassment made by student victims to the administration.

Jane Quimby, the investigator, conducted more than 100 in-person interviews and reviewed a large number of documents. At the end of her investigation, Quimby 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 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 Steamboat Springs School District Culture and Climate Task Force has been operating for about 20 months and is now looking for more people to serve as it transitions from a temporary task force to a permanent committee. It reported several goals to the school board in August.

As part of the task force’s work, Principal Richard Elertson said Tuesday that the high school hopes to eventually implement a class or program where students are taught about consent and appropriate behaviors.

“Until we get to that place, we’re spending a lot of our time reacting to behaviors that aren’t good, but there has been proactive work done,” Elertson said. “We’re defining what it looks like in a school setting to make sure people are safe.”

Elertson said the school’s administration is “fully in support” of students protesting Thursday.

“We want students to feel like they have a voice,” he added.

While Elertson said the school is actively working toward better education about sexual violence, Moore said she was disappointed in the initial steps the school took to address the problem after the investigation, which she said included a series of videos about what behaviors are and are not appropriate.

“I feel like there definitely was a slight effort there but emphasis on slight,” Moore said. “Whenever we have those sexual harassment talks, everyone was just kind of laughing about it, and it was presented in a way that made us feel like it wasn’t a serious topic.”

Adia Clark Lay, a senior at the high school who also helped plan the rally, said she and other female students often do not feel supported in reporting sexual harassment and assault to the school, and they are concerned the reports are not being taken seriously.

Clark Lay said she hopes the school provides better communication and more transparency to students who report sexual misconduct.

“Some people feel like they can’t stay safe because they aren’t being taken care of,” Clark Lay said. “I want students to feel like change will happen, and the perpetrator will be talked to and have consequences.”

Elertson said he also wants students to feel like they can talk with a teacher or staff member who will address the problem appropriately. Because not all students feel comfortable talking about such difficult topics with an adult, Elertson also promotes the school’s online reporting option.

Once a student files a complaint about sexual misconduct, the complaint is investigated by the school’s Title IX coordinator.

Title IX is a federal statute requiring educational institutions that receive federal funding to ensure that sexual harassment and sexual violence do not interfere with their students’ education and well-being.

Elertson said the investigation is a due process, taking accounts from both the complainant and respondent, and the complaint can either stay within the school’s disciplinary process or involve law enforcement depending on the nature of the issue. Elertson added that the complainant is asked about outcomes they hope to see as a result of the complaint.

“Sometimes, it will be that a student just wants to sit in the room with the other student and talk through the issue,” Elertson said. “But it depends what it is.”

Still, Clark Lay said she and other students are pushing for better communication about the Title IX process and enforcement of rules against those who commit acts of sexual misconduct.

“We want the school to be making the students feel helped when they come to you, because we don’t really know if the school is doing anything at this point,” Clark Lay said. “We feel like we can’t talk to anyone because who can we talk to if we can’t talk to anyone at the school?”

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