By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Parents and students at The Clinton School in Union Square were shocked and angry about a lack of communication from the school’s administration after boys in the high school were arrested for sexual abuse last month. Students organized and participated in a sit-in this past Tuesday in response, calling for transparency and action from the administration about this incident as well as additional allegations of racism, sexism and harassment that students said have not been addressed.
Town & Village reported last week that three male students were charged with sexual abuse in the school at 10 East 15th Street on February 11, although the NYPD later said that four students between the ages of 15 and 17 were arrested, confirming what multiple students told Town & Village this week. The victim said that she and the four boys were in a school bathroom, where they allegedly coerced her into taking lewd photos and wrote on her body without her consent.
After the story in Town & Village that was posted on February 24 circulated among parents and students at the school last week, the issue was discussed at a heavily-attended Parent Association (PA) meeting last Friday morning. Multiple parents told Town & Village that Principal Jon Levin claimed at the meeting that the story was inaccurate in some way but did not provide any corrections or clarifications, and Levin did not respond to a request for comment. The victim told Town & Village this Tuesday that the details in the story were accurate, although she said that she felt that she was coerced into taking the photos rather than bullied, as the original story stated.
Some students who were close to the victim told Town & Village that they heard about the incident shortly after the boys were arrested while others said they first heard about it after reading the story in Town & Village. Numerous parents said that the school never notified them about what happened and only found out through their children or through the story online. Both parents and students said they were shocked by the lack of communication from the school about it.
“It wasn’t until about 50 or so parents showed up on Friday morning and kind of assaulted [the principal] that he was forced to respond,” one parent of a middle schooler said. Although this incident occurred between high school students, the school also serves grades 6 to 8. “He was standing by protecting the privacy of the minors, but at the end of the day, you’re not a principal for just those five kids [who were involved in the incident].”
She added that she and other parents at the meeting last Friday understood the privacy concerns, but said they weren’t looking for any information about the students who were involved.
“He was trying to deflect,” she said. “There is this veil of secrecy. He needed to at least say that something happened, even if he says, ‘I can’t say a lot, there’s a lot I can’t address, I just want you to know that your kids are safe.’ I think we would’ve been understanding and felt safer but to find out by reading an article and have no response when we reach out is not OK.”
City Councilmember Helen Rosenthal, whose legislation mandating more transparency for sexual assault in public schools passed last Friday, said that it is “unacceptable” for a school to hide behind privacy as a reason not to communicate the incident with students and parents about sexual assault incidents.
“Parents have every right to know what happened because their kids are also minors,” Rosenthal said. “While it is an allegation and the suspects haven’t been convicted, I think if I were a parent, I would want to know, is this a culture that is tolerated? […] What action is the school taking so all children know what’s unacceptable? It’s worrisome that they would take a more defensive posture and that’s the absolute wrong way to approach this.”
Other parents voiced their frustration with the eventual response about privacy concerns and the previous lack of communication as well. Town & Village spoke with multiple parents for this story on the condition of anonymity due to fears of retaliation against their children from other students or to prevent embarrassing their children.
The parent of a senior in the school said that he was frustrated because he wanted to know about such incidents to ensure that his own daughter was safe.
“[Levin] is constantly sending out emails telling us what’s going in the school and what he’s doing, and he couldn’t mention anything?” he said. “Parents weren’t looking for the names of the students involved. There was [no communication] and that’s what a lot of people were angry about.”
A senior at the school, who didn’t want her name used due to fears of harassment from other students, told Town & Village that administrators also told students that no information was being released because of privacy issues and she was frustrated that the school was refusing to share information about what happened.
“Nobody was asking for names to be used or grades or anything, not even how many people were involved,” she said. “If they had just said, a sexual assault happened in our school and we are handling it, that could have been fine. It could have been easily said and that’s not breaking any privacy rules at all. Parents didn’t know about this until weeks later. They had a right to be furious.”
Other parents expressed frustration about the lack of communication from the school, especially in the context of the regular emails from Levin every week in a newsletter, “Letters from Levin.” Two parents that Town & Village spoke with were troubled that in the newsletter sent out on February 23, the day before the Town & Village story was posted and 12 days after the incident occurred, Levin reflected on a ski trip with his family but did not mention that there had been arrests in the school.
“I don’t really care that you went skiing but I do care if you’re concerned about my daughter’s safety,” the middle school parent said.
One of the students who participated in the sit-in, junior Vivian Lipson, said that she initially got unreliable information about the incident from other students, in addition to rumors about the students involved, and felt like that could have been at least partially prevented if the administration had told students that something had happened.
“It’s great that they’re protecting the student’s privacy and that’s the thing that they did a really good job on, but police did show up to our school and people did see people getting arrested,” she said. “The fact that they didn’t acknowledge that it happened is, I think, what started all these crazy rumors because people are just trying to make sense of that.”
Senior Sophi Tomasulo, who helped to organize the sit-in and also posted a petition to change.org directed to the school’s administration about the ongoing issues of racism, sexism and harassment that students had been facing, said that the longer the administration didn’t say anything, the more divide the student body became and rumors were rampant because students had no real information.
“I didn’t really expect the school to say anything when it happened but when [the boys] were arrested, I thought they might,” she said. “But when they didn’t, it felt like they were trying to sweep it under the rug and the people who felt the lack of security, their feelings were being invalidated because the administration made it seem like they didn’t think it was a big deal. Whether or not the allegation is true, the fact remains that students felt unsafe and that needs to be addressed. Students felt unsafe and the administration did nothing about it and that’s the bottom line.”
Tomasulo said that she got the idea for a sit-in after she got into an argument with a boy in the hallway while putting up posters about consent following the incident and he said that something like a sit-in might be less polarizing. She said that in addition to online harassment about the petition from other students, including classmates she didn’t know, she also found some of the posters about consent ripped down and urinated on in the boy’s bathroom while she was putting more posters up after school hours when other students weren’t there.
Despite the initial reaction to the incident from the administration, Tomasulo said that she was feeling a lot better about the situation this week because administrators and faculty ultimately worked with the students to facilitate the sit-in, but she was frustrated that students felt it was necessary to participate in such an action in the first place.
“I don’t want to bash on the administration because they’re doing a good clean-up but we shouldn’t be on clean-up. We should be on preventative and proactive duty,” she said. “I think they can grow from this. They need to recognize they have flaws and even students need to recognize they can learn from this.”
In addition to wanting more comprehensive teaching on consent and more education on the statistics of sexual assaults, the students were also motivated by previous incidents of racist, anti-Semitic and sexist behavior, especially because the students responsible for these infractions are rarely disciplined, the students said. The senior who spoke with Town & Village on the condition of anonymity said that another boy in her year would inappropriately touch her thigh repeatedly and harass her friends and after he was reprimanded by a teacher, he continued to touch her until she bit him in response. He stopped harassing her but was reportedly never punished aside from being reprimanded the one time.
Students involved in organizing the sit-in said that the action was initially planned without specific permission from the school’s administration and it wasn’t clear whether or not students would be penalized if they missed class while they were participating. But the administration ultimately signed off on allowing students to participate and allocated seven classrooms for discussions where the principal, vice principals, guidance counselors and some students led conversations.
Although the school did ultimately work with the students to allow for discussions throughout the day during, the senior that Town & Village spoke with said that she was rebuffed when she initially asked an administrator about a possible assembly on sexual assault and sexual violence.
A junior that Town & Village spoke with on the condition of anonymity due to fears of harassment who also participated in the sit-in said that she was hoping the school would encourage more discussions about the issue as well, rather than just put up roadblocks for potential perpetrators.
“[The school] just continued to have security guards and said they would lock bathrooms to stop it from happening, but they should be trying to convey to students why it shouldn’t happen and should be trying to educate people on the situation and consequences,” she said. An email from Levin to parents sent last Saturday said that the Building Response Team would be locking additional bathrooms in the school. “They weren’t creating change in the students who did this, but instead, they were given a way not to do it.”
Rosenthal also emphasized that education and open discussion are especially important.
“From young children into adulthood, the most important thing we can be doing is talking about it more and understanding how it happened and prevention,” she said. “By not talking about it, you are shrouding the incident in shame. If anything, you have to turn these horrible events, what you would never expect, into opportunities to teach children to learn, and especially for boys, this is absolutely unacceptable behavior and for girls that it’s unacceptable and they shouldn’t think it’s normal. It’s not so much about consequences as it is about how can we help this young man understand that this behavior is completely unacceptable? What is going on in his life that thinks this is OK? If that time isn’t invested in the young man, he will think it’s OK.”
Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who represents the district that the Clinton School is in, said that her office has been in touch with the mayor’s office and the Department of Education to verify what Clinton is doing to ensure that the school is a safe and healthy learning environment.
“Bullying and sexual abuse, especially in our schools, is unacceptable,” she said. “We must ensure that there are accountability structures in place to educate and prevent all forms of discrimination and harassment within our school system, as well as effective and transparent methods of investigating these incidents.”
In response to the incident, the Department of Education said that the principal, administrative team and superintendent are working to bring improvements in the school’s climate and culture.
“Schools must be safe havens and there’s no tolerance for sexual misconduct in schools,” DOE spokesperson Isabelle Boundy said. “This incident was immediately reported to NYPD and for investigation to ensure proper supervision at the school level. We’ve implemented changes to better address and prevent sex- or gender-based discrimination and harassment, and are providing additional supports to the school.”
There was no specific information on what these improvements would include but the agency is working to ensure that teachers at the school are trained in restorative practices, which are intended to improve and repair relationships between people and communities.
The DOE has also hired a permanent system-wide Title IX Coordinator and seven borough-based coordinators reporting to the Office of Equal Opportunity, although Rosenthal noted that eight coordinators for a system as big as New York’s is not enough. Title IX coordinators are responsible for ensuring that schools comply with Title IX, which aims to prevent sex discrimination throughout all programs within the education system. Chicago has 20 Title IX coordinators for a third as many students, Rosenthal said, meaning that New York should have over 60 since the public school system has more than 1.3 million students.
The DOE has trained 4,300 school staff members on topics such as dating violence, healthy relationships, student-to-student sexual harassment and gender inclusivity since last year, but the agency did not respond to any questions about whether or not DOE has an official policy about not providing notification to parents or the student body about sexual abuse incidents due to privacy concerns.
“In New York State, the publicly available data is totally anonymized so this notion of privacy is not helping the victim,” Rosenthal said. “It’s not helping the victim or the people doing the harassing. You want to educate people about why they shouldn’t be doing this to girls. This is a perfect opportunity for how the education system can step in and provide some social, emotional learning. There’s no question that something is going on in their lives that they’re spending time in school doing this.”