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Student protesters tell Lawrence school board that sexual assault victims have been silenced as abusers walk the halls

In a tense public comment period at the Lawrence school board meeting Monday, four students spoke out, asking for accountability for abusers and more protection for students and sexual assault survivors.

School board President Kelly Jones — at her last meeting in that capacity, as the board will elect new leadership in July — told the students she was glad to see them engaging with the school board, but asked them not to name names in their public comments. 

The Times is not reporting the details of what is alleged to have occurred or documentation that we have received in order to protect the identities of all minors involved, but tensions rose after the Lawrence High School football team Instagram account aired a “Summer Showcase Draft Day 2021” live last week. 

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About 15 students showed up to the meeting with signs bearing messages such as “Safety over sports,” “End rape culture in USD 497,” “Your silence is deafening” and “Hold them accountable.” 

Superintendent Anthony Lewis preempted the students’ comments by saying that “We are committed to providing all students, all staff, a safe, positive, and productive learning environment that’s free from discrimination and harassment. And that’s more than just words.” 

“We also appreciate students, we appreciate parents, staff members that report to us safety concerns that have happened or that you hear about, because it’s that open communication that allows us to keep our school safe.”

Lewis said the district hasn’t swept safety concerns under the rug — “They are brought into light so that we can look into them and hopefully resolve them.”

Here are some of the students’ comments to the board: 

• “It’s hard for survivors to speak out when the administration that is supposed to care for them and their well-being abandons them. And at the very least, this district needs to be held accountable and be transparent with their student body, because in the end, they’re only hurting people that they were elected to protect.”

• “When students ask questions and demand answers regarding incidents of assault and harassment, they demand answers. Victims have been silenced. They feel isolated and harmed. Victims should feel comfortable getting help, support and protection they deserve.”

• “Last fall, when a student at Lawrence High School sexually harassed another, an administrator belittled the students involved by telling them the issue should have been brought directly to administrators, rather than becoming public information and reported on social media. It is unacceptable to value the reputation of Lawrence High School and the district before the safety of students.” 

• “It is easy for the board to make a statement, but it’s more important for you to take action. Things have been swept under the rug. Things have come to the board’s attention months ago, and little to nothing has been done. It’s not just one or two incidents.”

• “I can’t feel safe when there’s multiple people who abuse and who assault just walking through the hallways with no repercussions for their actions.”

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Each student’s comment was met with applause from the crowd. 

Jones said that as her duties as president were coming to an end, she would have more time to focus on policies and procedures and looking into how they support gender equality specifically. 

“I think it’s quite brave to come and address the board in the way that you did, and we will, from that, develop some action steps to help support students at LHS and Free State,” Jones said. “That’s my commitment to you.” 

Students aren’t sure yet how much impact their words will have.

“Although it’s unlikely that very much change will come out of it, raising awareness by challenging the school board is an important step towards holding the accused and the administration that protects them accountable and fostering a safe environment for victims of sexual assault,” Clara Bode, a rising senior at LHS, told the Times. 

— August Rudisell, @KsScanner, contributed to this article. 

— Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached via email at mclark@lawrencekstimes.com or 785-422-6363.

More coverage:

• June 28, 2021: Recap: Lawrence school board meeting, June 28

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