Burke must improve its handling of sexual assault to ensure student safety and trust

One thing I want to make clear: probably every high school in the US has problems with rape culture. It’s a societal thing. And many of the administrators of those schools don’t have a great response whenever sexual misconduct is reported. Burke isn’t special, and it isn’t even close to being the worst. 

But that doesn’t give Burke an excuse. They can definitely do better.

There are some good arguments to be made about why students don’t trust the policies or teachers.

It’s hard to be transparent about policies and procedures when the school can’t give specifics. Legally, they can’t disclose any details about sexual misconduct towards a minor, which can make it hard to fully explain what happens when they get a report. Dealing in hypotheticals can be very difficult. 

And it’s impossible for the school to investigate a report of sexual misconduct if they only know the perpetrator’s name. They can’t follow up with anyone, which can make any attempts at verifying the story difficult. 

But those still aren’t full excuses. The problem is, there hasn’t been a good-faith effort by the school to get around these obstacles. 

The article I wrote could be a wonderful way to educate students about what happens when sexual misconduct gets reported. But I couldn’t get an interview with Vanessa Aird because Damian Jones wanted to be the only administrator who talked to me. Unfortunately, this caused a problem for me when I started asking questions about what happens if someone reports sexual misconduct. Damian, Steven, and Stacy all told me that these were questions for Vanessa. But I wasn’t allowed to talk to her.

I only got an interview with Lucy Kernan-Schloss after I got my first round of edits from the paper’s faculty advisor, Julia H.Cain. She had to be the one who set up the interview, and I could only talk to Kernan-Schloss on a Zoom call with Cain and Jones there too. 

There is a lack of transparency at a basic level. The school has been unwilling to tell students what happens, in the most general of terms, when sexual misconduct is reported. 

There cannot be a safe culture as long as there is a lack of trust. Burke needs to be more transparent about what happens when people report sexual misconduct. The fact that Burke legally has to let the police conduct an investigation was news to me, and I’ve spent the better part of a year going through documents and policies that the school has to follow. 

All the alumni said they weren’t surprised by the names of the alleged perpetrators. Everyone, at least the girls, knew that you shouldn’t be alone around specific guys, that you shouldn’t get drunk around them, or go to parties they were attending. 

As I was interviewing people for this article, I heard the same thing from current students, often off the record. “Everyone knows that harassment and assault happen all the time, but no one talks about it.” 

Burke continuously boasts about the close personal relationships students have with teachers. If the sexual misconduct that happens is so widely known, the teachers, who are so in the loop with students, must know about it too. 

But there hasn’t been an acknowledgment of this culture from the school. It often feels like, based on the attitude of faculty in health classes, statements, and class discussions, the school believes that there isn’t a problem with sexual misconduct. Lilah Silverman 19’ explained this attitude in her interview. 

“[Faculty] very much took the stance that Burke was an island and nothing bad happened at Burke. You need to watch out for the real world, but at Burke, you’re safe and protected,” she said. 

There seems to be a miscommunication between students and faculty. There are, of course, some students who also don’t think that there’s a problem with sexual misconduct at Burke, but there is also a large group of students for whom the casual acceptance of rape culture and sexual assault is obvious. 

But the school doesn’t talk about it. It feels impossible that faculty members don’t know about it, but still, everyone seems to act like sexual misconduct will be a problem. In the future. But isn’t something anyone will have to worry about while they’re at Burke. 

Interviews with alumni and current students revealed that this has been a problem for a number of years. Alumni from the classes of 2017, 2018, and 2019 all felt that Burke didn’t acknowledge survivors in their student body when they attended Burke, and current students said the same thing. 

This miscommunication has made many students not trust the school enough to make reports.  

Students’ lack of faith in Burke to properly handle reports of sexual misconduct has likely led to a culture in which victims and their peers don’t feel safe reporting problematic behavior. This type of environment leads to repeat offenders and more widespread sexual misconduct. Burke prides itself on being a progressive and safe school that confronts difficult issues while protecting students. Despite recent promises from the school, students and alumni continue to feel that Burke has failed to reach this goal. Many feel that there cannot be a safe culture until Burke does more to protect and educate its students.

I understand that the school can’t tell students the outcome of investigations into reports of sexual misconduct. By law, any case of sexual misconduct involving minors has to be kept private. But kids talk to each other, and word gets around. And when the school gives absolutely no acknowledgment of anything bad that happens in their community, students aren’t going to trust the systems the school has. 

On a certain level, it doesn’t matter if the school reacts to a report of sexual misconduct. If students feel that nothing happens, then they’re going to believe that the school doesn’t do anything, and they won’t trust the school to get justice. So they won’t use the Early Assistance Program, or talk to Lucy, or report instances to teachers. 

As I see it, there are three major steps that Burke needs to take: 

An investigation into how teachers respond to reports of sexual assault is required. And the school can’t use the excuse that they were made anonymously, because I know for a fact that Jones knows the name of at least one of the teachers who allegedly ignored reports and the name of the alumni who made the allegation.

More transparency about what happens when students report. Who should students go to? What happens when they report? People are scared that victims will be ignored or insulted if they try to report perpetrators. They don’t know what happens after they tell faculty things, which makes them less willing to do it. All they hear about is when students get written off. There is a distinct lack of trust among students towards the administration. That needs to be rebuilt.

More survivor-centric education. The school needs to acknowledge that there are students who have experienced sexual assault and change the health curriculum to reflect that.