Some students at Cape Elizabeth High School are unhappy with how the school has handled allegations of sexual assault, even as school officials say they’ve taken steps to respond to the students’ concerns.

The issues raised by students were brought up at a school board meeting in June and resurfaced last month when sticky notes were left in two girls’ bathrooms that said: “There’s a rapist in the school and we know who it is.”

Superintendent Donna Wolfrom and Principal Jeff Shedd said that while the notes are being looked into, they are confident the school is safe and there is not a rapist at the school.

The Cape Elizabeth Police Department is not investigating the notes, although the school resource officer is involved in the school’s investigation.

“We’re always concerned about student safety,” Wolfrom said. “We’ve been working on policies for reporting sexual harassment and I think it’s getting a lot of coverage in the news in general. There’s heightened awareness and concern throughout the country.”

The school district conducted eight investigations into possible violations of Title IX last school year, seven of which concerned sexual harassment or assault. Title IX is a federal law preventing gender discrimination and sexual violence in education.

The district investigations led to findings that violations “more likely than not” occurred in four cases, all of which led to disciplinary sanctions. The details of the cases and their outcomes are protected by federal student privacy and employment laws.

However, a video of the June board meeting posted on the town’s website highlights students’ concerns with how some incidents have been handled.

Aela Mansmann at her home in Cape Elizabeth. Mansmann, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School, has become an advocate for students who have reported sexual assault to the administration at her school. She and other students spoke about the incidents at Cape Elizabeth High to the school board in June. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Aela Mansmann, one of three students who spoke at the meeting and helped organize a regional summit last school year on sexual assault prevention and awareness, said despite going to the school board she still has concerns about how sexual assault allegations are handled.

“I don’t feel like my school deals with the issue of sexual assault in a good way,” Mansmann said.

“I feel there are a number of survivors in our school who have told me they have reported, whether through the guidance process or to other staff members, and no steps been taken to address those issues or steps have been taken where the response to those accusations hasn’t been great.”

In the video, Mansmann and two other students talk about their concerns.

Lilli Frame, who graduated from Cape Elizabeth last school year, read a statement from another former student, Grace Roberts, who said she was mentioned in a threat of school violence by a male student who had previously assaulted her, which prompted her to disclose the assault to the administration.

The following school year, in February 2018, Roberts was told by her peers the boy had been suspended for one day for threats of gun violence. She went to the principal, who told her that police had confiscated guns from his house.

She was alarmed to have not been notified about the incident and said there was a general lack of information about what happened from the administration.

Cape Elizabeth police said they do not have a record of any threats being made.

The only incident involving firearms and the school in February 2018 was a complaint of a “suspicious conversation” between students that stemmed from a discussion on gun control in a class, said Ed Hunt, clerk for the Cape Elizabeth Police Department.

He said there were no threats made and no firearms confiscated.

Asked about Roberts’ case, Shedd and Wolfrom said they were prevented from talking about incidents with individual students because of federal student privacy laws.

“All issues of reported possible violence are taken seriously and I can’t speak to it beyond that,” Shedd said.

At the June school board meeting a third student, Christena Gikas, told the board that she reported a sexual assault to school staff twice in the fall of 2018.

The assault happened at a sleepover in 2017 and Gikas said in an interview that she spent that night crying but didn’t realize until a year later it was something she should report. She also spoke to police about the case recently but did not file a report.

“I was told not to put my mental energy into my assault,” Gikas said in the video. “I was told he may have thought it was a romantic way to wake me up. This happened while I was asleep – the assault.”

“When I tried to bring to light what happened to me and tried to explain it, I was brushed off and the topic kept getting changed,” Gikas said. “So I just wanted to inform you guys and say I think more needs to be done around mandated reporting in the school and how important it is.”

Another student, a senior who asked to remain anonymous because she still attends school with the student who assaulted her, said in an interview her case involved the same male student and initially she reported it to a social worker.

She said she didn’t want anyone to know about the unwanted touching from the male student but felt uncomfortable around him in school.

“I was like, ‘OK, I guess they can’t do anything about it so I’ll just deal with it,'” she said.

In an interview last week, Gikas said that since she mentioned the school’s social workers – but not by name – at the school board meeting, she was told they might not want to meet with her this school year. Instead, she said she was offered the option to meet with the school nurse or the middle school social worker instead.

The social workers did not respond to emails from a reporter seeking comment. Cathy Stankard, the district’s director of teaching and learning and Title IX coordinator, said in an email she could not discuss the specifics of an individual student’s case because of federal law.

Wolfrom and school board Chairwoman Susana Measelle Hubbs said the students’ concerns were taken seriously after the June 11 meeting.

“I have had conversations with both the superintendent and the Title IX coordinator to review procedures in the event of sexual harassment claims and ensure that they are being followed,” Measelle Hubbs said in an email. “I was satisfied that every necessary protocol was followed every step of the way and that it was done so with great sensitivity.”

At the same June 11 meeting, the board approved an updated policy on harassment, including sexual harassment. Over the summer, Measelle Hubbs said a subcommittee was formed to review the procedures for the new policy. Several students were asked to participate, but only one was able to, she said.

The week after the meeting, the school attorney did a two-hour training for administrators and staff to clarify expectations for mandatory reporting, which is the stipulation in federal law requiring staff to report credible allegations of sexual assault or misconduct to school administrators or police.

However, Mansmann and her mother, who runs a sexual assault prevention and awareness group, said there has been a disconnect between the school’s response and the community.

“Updating the policy is great; however, I think you miss the mark when you don’t involve stakeholders,” said Shael Norris, Mansmann’s mother and the founding executive director of the sexual assault awareness group SafeBAE. “There was no opportunity to engage students who were the most affected. I just think that’s highly re-victimizing.”

After the sticky notes appeared in the girls’ bathrooms last month, the district sent an email to parents and students.

It said the notes implied adults at the school would be indifferent to the accusations, but they weren’t and that the school is required to follow established processes for investigations before rushing to conclusions.

One of the students involved in posting the notes said she did so to call attention to survivors of sexual assault who she said don’t feel safe coming to school. She asked to remain anonymous because other students at the school don’t know who posted them and she feared retaliation.

She said the notes refer to a particular male student who has been accused of sexual assault, who is different from the student Gikas named.

“What I wanted to happen through those sticky notes was acknowledgement this is not our first attempt to have a conversation with the school administration,” the student said. “The goal with the sticky notes was to spark that conversation.”

 

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