Education

Stories of alleged sexual harassment continue as Merced high school board addresses policies

Teachers, students and supporters hold up #MErcedTOO signs, a play off the national #MeToo movement, during a Merced Union High School District board meeting Wednesday, June, 13, 2018, at the administrative building in Atwater.
Teachers, students and supporters hold up #MErcedTOO signs, a play off the national #MeToo movement, during a Merced Union High School District board meeting Wednesday, June, 13, 2018, at the administrative building in Atwater. vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

The national "#MeToo" discussion that has reinvigorated conversations on sexual assault and harassment came to Atwater on Wednesday, as teachers, students and supporters continued to come forward and claim the Merced Union High School District administration mishandled complaints.

During a school board meeting that stretched to five hours at the MUHSD administrative building, recent Livingston High graduates Luisa Garibay and Tatiana Solorio publicly shared their claims of being sexually violated and harassed by classmates. Garibay told trusteens she and Solorio filled out a form for administrators, explaining the harassment and assault allegations. "An admin talked to us and we were told that they couldn't do anything about it, and they would keep him on their radar, and that would be all," Garibay said.

Solorio broke into tears as she struggled to recount how male classmates sexually assaulted her and "treated her like trash."

"We told some of the principals but they couldn't do anything, are you kidding me," she said. "And I've talked about my story so many times and I'm tired of it,” she said. “I'm a teenage girl and I have depression because of this guy., I'm traumatized because of this guy and you couldn't do anything."

Board members and administrators didn't directly respond to personal accounts shared at the meeting. "Due to the confidential nature of personnel and student-related information, the District cannot publicly discuss details related to past or current investigations," according to a statement by the district.

During the meeting, school district administrators presented an action plan on how the school district will address policies related to sexual and non-sexual harassment, bullying and intimidation.

The plan was in response to an explosive board meeting on May 9 that saw decorated Golden Valley High School teacher Annie Delgado publicly reveal how her corroborated claim that another employee sexually harassed and touched her was ignored by the administration, namely Deputy Superintendent of Human Resources Ralph Calderon.

According to the plan, the district will focus on seven goals: committed and engaged leadership, consistent accountability, strong anti-harassment policies, trusted and accessible complaint procedures, more frequent and interactive training, maintaining consistent documentation on complaints and proactive checks on high schools' "culture and climate" issues.

The plan also includes additional goals like dedicating personnel time to training, establishing and publicizing expectations of behavior, providing greater understanding of the process on filing complaints and updating policies to current regulations.

According to the district, several of the action steps have been accomplished and the rest of the plan's component will be implemented around the time school starts in fall. But the goals didn't go far enough, according to several women's and human rights advocates who spoke at the meeting. "The plan is too vague," said Katrina Ruiz, a community advocate, noting that the objectives should be more specific and "spelled out.".

Several advocates like Claudia Gonzalez with We'Ced Youth Media and Carol Heldman, a national advocate against sexual harassment, spoke at the meeting.

Gonzalez said some students who wanted to tell the board their stories of mishandled sexual harassment or violence complaints decided not to come forward because they felt intimidated by administrators. Some of their stories were read by others at the meeting.

She spoke in favor of an initiative by board member John Medearis to add at least one student representative to the school board.

While there was discussion on details, such as whether that student member should have equal voting power as board members, the board agreed on forming a subcommittee to start the process of adding a student member.

While thanking the administration for considering changes and creating an action plan, Heldman said the plan failed to address key components of necessary change and gave the school district a list of six demands with timelines.

If the district doesn't comply, Heldman said a growing group of survivors and supporters will take several steps to try and force its hand, including creating an online website with survivors' accounts, launching a social media campaign called "#TimesUpMUHSD," helping victims file a Title IX complaint with the State Department of Education, filing lawsuits against the district, engaging in protests and working with local and national press to raise awareness.

The group's six demands include hiring an independent professional to conduct public and private meetings with survivors, instituting mandatory annual training for students and staff, updating the district's bullying, intimidation and harassment policies to state and national standards, making an easier and more accountable reporting process to avoid victim-blaming, conducting annual "District Climate" surveys and additional training for school resource officers.

The district's plan covers some of these demands. And the school board on Wednesday unanimously passed updates to its sexual harassment, non-sexual harassment and bullying policies to align with state law.

But advocates said it wasn't enough. "The plan is too vague," said Katrina Ruiz, a community advocate with Youth Leadership Institute Merced, noting that the objectives should be more specific and "spelled out.".

Ruiz also called out the school board, criticizing the lack of female members and noting just two members replied to multiple emails from her organization. "Can you understand how it appears unsympathetic when five to seven of you receive an email and only two of you respond," she said.

Honey said he took offense to the notion that the all-male board couldn't be sympathetic to women's concerns regarding sexual harassment and violence. He recounted how his niece attempted suicide because of a related situation, and touted his involvement in advocating for girls' sports for the district.

Trustees during the meeting also did not discuss the status of Calderon. Several teachers have asked the board to remove Calderon from his position following questions about his history and credentials.

Calderon was targeted by teachers during the May 9 meeting, and a special board meeting on May 17, for allegedly not properly handling teachers' and students' complaints of sexual harassment and violence.

After the meeting, Calderon declined to comment on the allegations and calls for his removal.

"I am here to serve kids and I will do the best job possible," he said.

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