Graham Hackett: A path forward
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Everybody please take a breath. We’re going to get this right.
My name is Graham Hackett, and I serve as social change program manager for Advocates of Routt County. I’d like to offer some perspective on the recent effort of Steamboat Springs High School students to compel action on sexual misconduct in the school, as well as the perceived inaction of the administration to adequately address these issues. Understandably, emotions are running high, but take heart, because there is a path forward that empowers the entire school community to effectively confront these issues and move toward becoming one of the safest school districts in Colorado.
Let’s also attempt to look at this issue keeping in mind that more than one thing can be true.
Students do have legitimate concerns, and the Steamboat Springs School District is making a good-faith effort to respond to them. So let’s unpack this a bit.
First of all, we must clarify use of the term “rape culture” in the recent Steamboat Pilot & Today story. Rape is a horrific crime, so many people are rightly alarmed if they were led to believe this is constantly occurring among our youth. Fact is, rates of teen dating violence do reflect larger social trends, so we must not minimize or shy away from the fact that abuse and assaults do occur among young people.
But let’s be perfectly clear: Especially among young people, the term “rape culture” does not refer to a scenario where everyone is running around forcing sex on each other. Rather, “rape culture” speaks to all of the harmful behaviors that set the stage for sexual assault to occur, including sexism, objectification, humiliation/degradation, disrespect, derogatory jokes, catcalling, harassment, homo/transphobia, open bigotry and, of course, any unwanted touch. Each of these behaviors causes actual, tangible harm by diminishing the innate worth and humanity of a victim, which opens the door for more serious abuses, including sexual assault.
The term “culture” also implies that these behaviors are rampant across the entirety of the high school population. This is not the case. A small number of bad actors can create this impression, especially if their problem behaviors are not confronted by peers. As expressed by the joint letter recently put out by the school board, superintendent and Steamboat Springs High School principal, there is a large community at the high school, and a clear majority contributes to a safe and healthy school environment.
Despite the sense of shame from having any part of our school community publicly labeled a “rape culture,” we must resist the urge to blame any students who make that assertion. On the contrary, they should be applauded for having the courage to take action and jumpstart efforts that address the misconduct they’ve experienced and witnessed. Even if the term “rape culture” unintentionally misled people about the frequency or severity of the harm being caused, make no mistake, these students are responding to real issues they’ve experienced first hand.
“Forty-nine percent of students reported being aware of an incident of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct involving students.” — Jane Quimby’s investigation summary report, April 2020
After the front-page article in Steamboat Pilot & Today a couple of years ago reporting on a perception among some students that the previous high school administration was dismissive or retaliatory when faced with reports of sexual misconduct, the Steamboat Springs School District took several decisive steps to better understand the situation and improve the school’s response.
Ex-FBI agent Jane Quimby was hired to conduct an independent investigation and produced a valuable report. All district schools strengthened their reporting procedures for Title IX (the legal statute to ensure any publicly-funded school is allowing all students to learn free from sexual misconduct, harassment or assault) and an official Title IX coordinator position was established to manage efforts districtwide. Also, a district-level Culture and Climate Task Force was established to determine what other policies, programs or projects could be developed to improve conditions, as well. And the educational video series “Safe Schools” was implemented for school populations across the district, addressing sexual harassment.
Members of the high school administration have also explained that, despite these significant actions being taken by the district, they have not effectively communicated to students about all the measures being put in place to make them safer. So, if these students were unaware of new policies, task force efforts, etc., and they’ve recently seen the same toxic behaviors recurring among their peers without a visible response from the school, it makes sense they’d feel compelled to try and move the needle on these issues themselves. The fact that any youth in our community are so frightened they feel they must resort to drastic action, pleading for adults to take meaningful, sustainable measures to keep them safer … well, it’s an indicator of a much larger social problem. And it’s on all of us to respond.
So let’s prove to our youth that we’re listening and demonstrate that help is on the way.
The new high school principal Richard Elertson appears ready to tackle these issues head-on. The district’s task force is being firmly established as an ongoing, permanent entity where a combination of dedicated school officials, parents and students will continue to work on these issues over the long term. And both Elertson and Superintendent Brad Meeks have signaled a willingness to work more closely with Advocates on developing a robust plan to address the challenges our school community is facing.
Advocates already provides several resources for the school community:
• A strictly confidential Safe-Line (970-879-8888) providing anyone direct access to Advocates and well-trained volunteers, available 24-hours per day, seven days per week (for crisis and non-crisis concerns)
• A dedicated youth advocate specialist, with years of experience in youth service work (including with Partners of Routt County)
• Educational workshop presentations covering consent, boundaries, communication skills, observation, decision making, healthy relationships, online safety and intervention strategies available for middle and high school students, school and district staff, and parents.
Advocates is prepared to collaborate with the entire school community to provide valuable perspective on social conditions, crucial insights about the nature of these issues and even skill-building opportunities so we can all become better prepared to engage with these complex situations. Together, we can make our communities safer. All that is required is a collective will throughout the entire school community to hold the prevention of sexual misconduct and abuse among our top priorities and then follow through by acting on this intention. We can take great strides quickly if we’re all prepared to contribute and pursue solutions.
To this end, Advocates is hosting a public forum for the entire school community of Routt County at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 3, at the Steamboat Springs Community Center to help provide clarity on these issues and respond to questions.
Graham Hackett has been an educator and project manager for over 20 years, specializing in working with high-risk youth. He is currently serving as social change program manager with Advocates of Routt County.
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