The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

The Student News Site of Washington International School

International Dateline

Upper School Students Push for Sexual Education Reform

Demonstrators protesting at the 2017 Women’s March in D.C. Among the crowd were WIS students, who are now advocating for sexual education reform. (Meg Kelly/NPR)

Between three and five million protesters gathered for the 2017 Women’s March on the first full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, according to the Washington Post. The march was a message to Trump’s administration that women’s rights are human rights. 

WIS students were among the crowd gathered in front of the Capitol, waving signs scrawled with feminist and pro-choice slogans: “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” and “We are not ovary-acting.”

Five years later, WIS students are still driving change. Upper Schoolers are pushing for reform of WIS’s sexual education curriculum and have created a Female Identifying affinity group. 

This student activism stems from several instances of sexual assault off-campus in the 2021-2022 school year.

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A WIS junior, Student A, recounted her experiences of assault by a fellow student. The first time she was assaulted, she was under the influence of alcohol. “I’m tired, I’m drunk, I want to take care of myself,” Student A said. “He just flips me over and he’s on top, so I can’t get out. And it’s just happening.” 

During a second encounter when she was sober, he assaulted her again. “He [kept] doing all these things to try and manipulate me into letting him use my body,” she said. “Unfortunately, he did end up getting what he wanted. And that was so hurtful and I am so disgusted by the entire situation.”

Student A told friends about her experience, but chose not to go to the administration. After experiencing assault, students may be uncertain of the resources available to them.

If they do not want to directly contact the administration, they have access to a Health & Wealthness resource board on OnCampus with links to hotlines and educational websites.

Furthermore, each year, the school brings in guest speakers from Planned Parenthood and other sexual health organizations to present at assemblies. Moreover, Middle School seminar includes classes on sexual health and anatomy. 

If students require one on one support, they can speak to Upper School Counselor Kelsey Morgan or Middle School Counselor Marilyn Wilson Odhiambo. 

However, some students are unaware of these resources. 

When another junior, Student B, was sexually assaulted, she decided against going to the administration because she didn’t know what support they could provide. “They should just be more explicit about what the action is that they would take and what the consequences would be,” she said. 

She was assaulted off-campus by two WIS students. “One of these people grabbed my hand and brought me into the closet, and started making out with me and just taking advantage of the situation,” Student B said. “I was not in a state where I was able to consent. And I think that they knew that, but chose to do it anyway.”

Had Student B informed a faculty member of her assault, the adult would have been required to report the information to the administration. Every WIS employee who interacts with students is a mandated reporter, which means that they are required under federal law to report sexual assault and any other form of child endangerment.

The school uses the Department of Justice’s definition of sexual assault: “The term ‘sexual assault’ means any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.”

If the assault happens off campus, it is the family’s decision whether or not to report it to the police. The school supports whatever action the family chooses to take.

However, once the administration hears about an instance of sexual assault, they report the information to Child Protective Services (CPS). “It’s not the school’s role, or any educational institution’s role, to judge or jury. It is up to the professionals to decide,” Upper School Principal Sarah Polland said. 

Student A finds that WIS’s role in instances of sexual assault is disappointing. “I do wish the school would take more action, but at the same time, I’m aware it’s difficult and their hands are tied in a sense because of the law,” Student A said.

Nonetheless, the administration has other ways to work with students; they can and have moved students to different classes or advisories per their request to avoid interactions with their assaulter. 

Another junior, Student C, did not go to the administration either about her experience of assault. “He just started kissing me,” she said. “It wasn’t very long, just gross. It was like he was blowing warm air into my mouth. It was so uncomfortable because there were so many people around.”

Afterward, she blamed herself for the assault but eventually realized that it hadn’t been her fault. “Thinking about it now and reflecting on it, I’ve realized that I’d made it pretty obvious and clear to [him] that I didn’t want to,” Student C said.

In light of the several recent instances of sexual assault, juniors Astrid Bergman, Safiya Mugengana and Nina Young suggested a support group for assault survivors to Polland and Morgan. A separate group of seniors proposed the same idea to the administration.

Mugengana felt that this group was needed to support survivors of sexual assault, in addition to the resources already provided by the school. “There wasn’t any safe space for victims of sexual assault,” she said. “There’s only the options of moving classes [so the survivor isn’t in class with their assaulter], talking to Morgan [or] filing a police report which… adds more scrutiny on the survivor who literally just wants support.” 

Although Polland understands why students would find a sexual assault support group helpful, she said that it was not a feasible option for a school. “We can’t have a support group when we have minors who may be coming forward, sharing experiences that their parents aren’t even aware of,” Polland said. “That’s just not appropriate for the school.”

Polland and the juniors settled on a Female Identifying affinity group instead. “The affinity group is almost a place in the middle where we don’t just talk about sexual assault,” Mugengana said. “We also talk about rape culture and [what] we could do to not only protect but to inform our community about this topic.”

The seniors who initially brought concerns to the administration were dissatisfied with the decision and chose not to be involved in the affinity group. “Although a Female Identifying affinity group sounds very beneficial, it is not a fair substitute for a group for survivors of sexual violence as it implies sexual assault is a women’s issue, which it is not,” Senior A said. “Furthermore, it would exclude non-female identifying people who may have struggled with sexual violence.”

Bergman, Mugengana and Young are the leaders of the Female Identifying group. The first meeting was held on Mar. 4. Bergman chose to lead the affinity group in order to support other students. “It’s important that everyone feels that they can contribute, even if they haven’t experienced something [like sexual assault],” she said. “Their support matters and they can be a part of this group.”

However, the structure of affinity groups limits what participants can say in confidentiality. Upper School English teacher Susan Chung-Fontaine is the affinity group’s faculty leader, but she’s also a mandated reporter. “At the start of the first meeting, we will communicate that clearly and explicitly,” she said. “We do want confidentiality, but if I have to compromise that, I want it to be transparent.” 

Once the sexual assault support group idea was deemed unsuitable for WIS, Senior A, along with another student, decided to devote her Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) project to revising WIS’s sexual education curriculum. Their goal is to solidify the concept of consent in the minds and behavior of students. 

This sexual education is primarily taught in Primary and Middle School. It is less emphasized in the Upper School, where the seminar course briefly addresses sexual consent. 

In Primary School, the counselors focus on teaching students about bodily autonomy and establishing physical boundaries. “If it doesn’t feel right, it’s probably not right,” Wilson Odhiambo said. “No one should be touching you where a bathing suit would be.”

Wilson Odhiambo emphasized the importance of teaching consent to elementary school students in a way that’s age-appropriate. “You need to talk about these topics so that they can understand them at their developmental stage in life, hence the words, ‘good touch, bad touch,’” she said. “We wouldn’t do that with an eighth-grader.” 

Instead, eighth-graders receive health classes on Consent and Communication, a curriculum designed by Wilson Odhiambo. During the classes, she brings in guest speakers from Planned Parenthood.

Eighth-grader Nico Watts thinks that one improvement for the classes is demonstrating the importance of sexual education to students. “We need to get them to [understand] that this is actually important knowledge and it’s not just about sex and scary topics,” he said. “It’s good for us to be good citizens [and] good people when confronted with stuff like this.”

In her first year at WIS, Senior A attended a class meeting about consent. The guest speakers explained consent through the lens of sharing french fries, namely that you wouldn’t want someone to take your food without your permission. 

She thought that the explanation was too childish. “It was not sufficient,” she said. “By the time you’re in high school, you already have that basic knowledge and need to build on it.” 

Senior A’s CAS project intends to introduce metaphors similar to the fries one in the Primary and Middle School. She and the other senior aim to focus the high school sexual education on a variety of more complex topics instead, such as the responsibility of bystanders to intervene if they witness an assault and the different actions that students can take if they have experienced assault.

Another issue Senior A noticed is a lack of communication between the two campuses concerning sexual education. “We’re attempting to work with Primary, Middle and [Upper] School coordinators all together to make sure that the sexual education curriculum is fluid,” she said. 

“[Middle and Upper School counselors] seem to have trouble communicating with the primary school considering they’re on a different campus,” Senior A said. “So we’re not exactly sure what their sexual education curriculum consists of.”

Wilson Odhiambo agrees that communication between the two campuses can be challenging. “The counseling department does meet as a whole, but it’s maybe two or three times a year,” she said. “It’s also typically more counseling related than curriculum related.” 

Ultimately, Wilson Odhiambo hopes that the revised sexual education curriculum will teach students how to engage in healthy, safe relationships. “Safety can be having those conversations about using contraception and keeping yourself physically safe,” she said. “But there’s the emotional safety as well: being able to say no and not feeling that pressure to appease someone.”

By Abigail Bown and Maia Nehme

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