Sexual misconduct allegations highlight concerns about Burke’s culture, policy
Content Warning: The following article contains discussions of sexual assault and harassment. Reader discretion is advised.
May 21, 2021
In June 2020, a series of social media posts accused five recent Burke alumni of varying degrees of sexual misconduct, ranging from harassment to rape. The posts were made on an Instagram page with accusations against students from various local high schools, as part of a movement led by high school students and alumni across the DC region. Several posts suggested that students had reported these allegations to teachers or administrators, but didn’t receive follow-up.
On July 1st, in response to the allegations, Head of School Damian Jones sent a community-wide email assuring that Burke was “currently engaged in a careful examination of our policies and communications to see what further improvements can be made” and asking “current and former students to reach out about any concerns that they may have.”
In the aftermath of the allegations, however, some current students have expressed ongoing concerns about the current state of Burke’s culture surrounding sexual misconduct.
Rules & Process
Under DC law, as laid out on this document that Burke teachers sign every year, any teacher “who suspects a student is being abused physically, emotionally or sexually… [must] contact the Head of School immediately.” Upon receiving a report, the head of school “is required to contact the DC Department of Child and Family Services.” The school is required to inform police of any allegations of sexual misconduct, including minor-to-minor abuse.
“If an allegation is raised, the school has to immediately report it to law enforcement,” said Jones. “[Police] interview any number of people … [they] turn over their investigative report to the attorney general office. The attorney general’s office has to evaluate if criminal charges can be brought against the alleged assailant, and it’s [typically] not until after that assessment that the school can pick back up their process.”
The allegations accused teachers of not informing the Head of School about reports of sexual misconduct. In interviews, multiple past and current students describe a culture where, from their vantage points, misconduct went uninvestigated and unpunished.
Lilah Silverman ‘19 explained that Burke’s consent education convinced her to report an incident of on-campus rape to a teacher after hearing the perpetrator brag about it. However, she alleges that when she followed up with Head of School Damian Jones and School Psychologist Lucy Kernan-Schloss, they told her they were not aware of her report. Silverman speculated that the teacher never told Jones or Kernan-Schloss about the report, as required by DC law. That teacher was unavailable for comment.
“[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,” Silverman said.
Other alumni shared experiences similar to Silverman’s
“I do feel super let down because personally, I had reported [one of the alumni accused on social media] to a few ‘trusted’ adults, and nothing was done … Burke teachers see things, they know things, so I don’t understand why they don’t do things,” said Mimi Thomas ‘17.
Helen Ferguson ‘17 also had a similar experience.
“I went to an administrator [to report something that made me uncomfortable], and they said ‘boys will be boys.’ And I remember thinking, ‘whoa, that’s specifically not what you’re supposed to say.’ And then it felt like nothing [was] going to happen,” she said in a phone interview.
An anonymous alum recalled being told that a survivor of assault was “‘unstable and did not understand what rape was” after reporting another incident.
“Everyone I have heard talk about it has said that Burke consistently pushes sexual assault under the rug and does not give close to enough punishment to the perpetrators,” said Maya Cole ‘21.
When asked about the source of this mistrust in a joint interview, both Jones and Kernan-Schloss explained that often students make reports anonymously, which makes it difficult for law enforcement to investigate the case.
“[The report] comes to us anonymously, the name of the victim is not disclosed,” said Jones, “so we have often struggled with, how we make people more comfortable with disclosing [names], because it really doesn’t rest with us, it rests with [law enforcement].”
However, Silverman, Thomas and Ferguson assert that they reported with names, and, according to their accounts, the adults didn’t follow through.
On this question, administrators offered limited interview opportunities. Jones declined to comment directly on the allegations, because he didn’t have details about the specific incidents.
As the allegations raised questions about sexual misconduct reports, current students expressed some uncertainty about the exact protocols Burke follows.
“I honestly have no idea [if Burke’s protocols are good],” says a student who preferred to remain anonymous. “I don’t know what Burke’s protocols and systems are regarding sexual harassment and assault. So maybe that says something?”
“I think having an anonymous program like the EAP [Early Assistance Program] is a good idea in theory, but it’s not executed well and there’s a lot of confusion about what it is. People also aren’t sure if it’s actually anonymous or not, which can lead to people not using it as well,” said an anonymous student.
The EAP is a program that lets community members anonymously report sexual misconduct, drug abuse, and other serious matters to the school psychiatrist, Lucy Kernan-Schloss. It is non-disciplinary, so all students involved can get help without risking consequences.
Multiple students interviewed state that, because they don’t know what policies Burke follows when they hear allegations, many do not trust administrators to properly handle such reports.
“While there may be individual links in the support system that are pretty strong, overall I wouldn’t fully trust Burke to get justice,” said an anonymous student.
Burke’s public response to the allegations included three emails sent to members of the community, a discussion in a town hall, and an article on consent education in the 1984 magazine. However, some current students feel that it was not enough.
Jones’ community-wide email, sent on July 1, 2020, stated that Burke strives “to make our school a safe space, where students with concerns about sexual misconduct can raise those issues and know these matters will be taken seriously.”
“I’ve been pretty disappointed in Burke’s reaction to the allegations. The allegations were of very recent alumni that many of the students who go to the school currently know. It’s disappointing that Burke hasn’t looked into these allegations,” said Jonah LeCompte ‘21.
“Burke could have done more than just send an email. Students need to feel comfortable and safe with telling faculty about their experiences and know that they will be taken seriously,” agreed another student, who wished to remain anonymous.
Silverman was specifically disappointed that the email made no promises. The closest thing to a promise in the email was Jones’ claim about a “careful examination.”
“The policy was reviewed … [but] there were no material changes made because the policy is pretty cut and dried … I have to call the [DC] police. That’s it,” Jones said when asked about the outcome of that examination.
Culture and Prevention Concerns
“Rape culture” is often defined as “images, language, laws, and other everyday phenomena that validate and perpetuate rape” (from Upsetting Rape Culture). Many alumni and current students feel that Burke has a problem with rape culture separate from specific allegations.
“What I’ve noticed about the student culture in terms of sexual assault and consent is that there is a lack of maturity,” said Rebecca Meroney ‘21.
“There was definitely a problem with Burke’s culture,” said Thomas. “It came from students, faculty, staff, everyone.”
For some people, the careless attitude toward harassment seemed to lead to trivialization and normalization of inappropriate behaviors.
“People went around slapping people’s asses or squeezing people’s thighs and treating like it was funny when it was just really uncomfortable,” said a student who preferred to remain anonymous.
“[Male students] would do inappropriate things … or say something that was sexist or inappropriate, and it would just be, ‘ugh, that’s how they are.’ That definitely became just part of life. It was very normalized,” said Ferguson.
“It was almost like, because of the relationships we had with teachers, they couldn’t confront kids … it just felt like the teachers weren’t willing to talk to them [if a student did something inappropriate],” she said.
One anonymous student felt concerned that the school doesn’t do enough to discourage this kind of sexual harassment. “I haven’t really seen much on prevention,” they said.
Stacy Smith, Health Values and Ethics (HVE) teacher, said that the HVE classes are Burke’s way of preventing sexual misconduct.
“I am the preventative stuff. I am teaching healthy relationships,” Smith said. “I’m the one who helps the Dean of Students find … speakers on consent and lots of different topics that surround that.”
Consent is included in Burke’s sex-ed curriculum through Smith’s health classes and annual “consent talks.” The main subjects of these presentations vary, with examples including consent, safe sex, self-defense and, most recently, healthy relationships. In recent years, these “consent talks” have been run by the organization One Love, which provides speakers to the school to teach students about recognizing signs of abuse and unhealthy relationships.
However, students expressed doubt that the presentations are enough to teach students about consent.
“Having a grade meeting with a presentation about consent once a year (that isn’t taken very seriously by students) is not enough to actually teach students about consent,” one anonymous student said.
“I do think the school could do a much better job of having these talks more regularly so it’s not such a taboo thing to some students. It’s important for people to be educated fully,” agreed another anonymous student.
Students also expressed concern about the school’s consent education beyond these talks.
“I do think our health classes cover [consent] some,” said Cole. “But it could certainly be covered more.”
“What is it that Burke does [to protect and educate students]?” asked Caterina Dinale Sella ‘21. “Outside of this one consent talk? I believe the answer is nothing. That makes no sense. Not at all good enough.”
“I think it would be better if Burke had a more proactive and protective support system in place for people that are victims of sexual assault within the Burke community,” agreed Helen Jentoft-Herr ‘21.
Not all students felt that Burke had a problem with rape culture.
“Overall, I would describe Burke’s student culture around consent and sexual assault as mature. Students check each other on a daily basis,” said one anonymous student.
“I feel as though Burke is a place where if someone was assaulted they could share their story freely without judgement or being condemned as if it was their fault,” said another.
Silverman felt that Burke’s issue was not a lack of education, but rather what happens after.
“My consent education was excellent, it was thorough, but the follow-through was minimal, if anything,” Silverman said.
“I think when it comes to student culture, students in the Burke community are quick to understand the value and importance of consent,” agreed an anonymous student, “but at the same time understanding and following the guidelines of consent are two different things.”
Note: this story was managed and edited by the outgoing Cageliner editorial board, not the incoming one