Last Wednesday, the Merced Girls & Womyn of Color (GWoC) stood up against sexual harassment in their schools — and WON.
The June 13th Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) Board meeting was filled to capacity. Students and other community members wore t-shirts and carried signs. Brave young leaders stood up before the Board, their peers, and the larger community to give tearful accounts on behalf of their friends — young women who had been bullied, harassed, and ignored into silence and preferred to remain anonymous.
They were there to protest the rampant allegations — and the administration’s woeful mishandling — of sexual harassment and assault cases on MUHSD campuses.
After much debate, the Board approved the following policies:
- Youth will be represented on the School Board, either as appointed members or with voting rights, by January 2019 to ensure that youth have a say in creating policies that protect them from sexual harassment, among other key issues.
- Sexual harassment and assault reporting protocols will be updated.
- Sexual assault and harassment prevention education for both students and staff will be added to the curriculum in all four years of high school.
- A staff position will be created exclusively for handling reports of sexual harassment and support.
The wins follow on months of intensive organizing on the MErcedTOO campaign, in partnership with Valley Crisis Center and our young men in YLI Merced’s Rise & Lift program. The issue was brought to YLI Program Coordinator Claudia Gonzalez’ attention back in February, when community members shared their concerns about sexual harassment at Golden Valley High School and is asked for her support to address the issue.
The the new YLI office in Merced hit the ground running in March, with Gonzalez hard at work establishing the Girls and Womyn of Color (GWoC). In early April, she invited adult female allies from the Merced community to attend GWoC meetings and serve as mentors for GWoC youth leaders. The issue of sexual harassment and assault arose during open dialogue, triggering emotional responses — everyone present had a personal story of sexual harassment, or knew someone who did. The GWoC decided that they would make this issue the focus of their first campaign.
With no time to lose, Gonzalez and YLI intern Guadalupe Reyes lead GWoC youth through bootcamp-style trainings on policy change and campaign strategy. The young women identified the lack of protocol, designated staff for reporting sexual assault, and consequences for perpetuators as key problem areas that needed to be addressed, and began preparing scripts to present their demands to the School Board. As April drew to a close, Valley Crisis Center presented about Title IX, which requires schools to share information about resources and support for victims of sexual harassment.
On May 2nd, the youth distributed over 200 surveys across MUHSD campuses. Preliminary findings were astounding: an overwhelming number of young women on every campus had either experienced sexual assault and harassment or knew someone who had. The topic is not covered in any classes, and most students were unaware of the protocol for reporting sexual harassment and assault, and/or did not feel safe reporting. Personal stories shared on the surveys revealed that students who reported such incidents were often bounced around from the councillors to teachers to administrators, only to be dismissed, blamed, or even punished for speaking up.
Armed with information, prepared scripts, personal stories, survey data, posters, t-shirts, and a list of demands, GWoC youth marched into the May 9th School Board meeting accompanied by their youth male and adult allies. The issue had gone viral within the Merced community, and Board meeting was filled to capacity, and many people were turned away.
Although the topic was not on the agenda, 7 young people signed up to offer public comment. The time dragged as the Board plodded through the other agenda items. Finally, after waiting for close to two hours, the meeting opened to public comment. Annie Delgado, a decorated teacher in the District, led with an impassioned statement about her experience of sexual harassment, and fought back tears as she described the administration’s brash refusal to address it. Youth leaders followed, sharing their personal stories or anonymous stories on behalf of their peers, along with their demands. The meeting was covered an article by Program Associate & Reporter Jen Mac Ramos at We ‘Ced Youth Magazine.
The days and weeks following the meeting were a tumult of activity. Instead of being honored for their courage, GWoC youth were pulled out of class to make statements to private investigators. Emails were fired at the entire MUHSD Board, the Superintendent Peterson, and Golden Valley Principal, and visits were made to the District Office. On June 6th, GWoC and an adult ally group, FIX, hosted a listening session for women of all ages to share their experience as women living in Merced. The session was attended by over 30 women of all ages and ethnicities, and ended with a call to show up in solidarity at the June 13th Board meeting.
When June 13th finally arrived, all of GWoC’s demands had been added to the agenda. The Board shared their Sexual Harassment Response Action Plan to a packed room — an incredible win for the Merced community in just 4 months of operation. The story was reported in an article in the Merced Sun Star.