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Sexual harassment case prompts Red Wing to revise district policy

Disclaimer: Hannah Coyle was a reporting intern at the Red Wing Republican Eagle for the summer of 2018.

While eating dinner with her mother last school year, Hannah Coyle received a video via Snapchat — a common occurrence in the life of a teenager. Coyle opened it, only to be mortified.

The video, shot in the hockey locker room at the Red Wing School District, depicted a fellow male student bragging about having sex with Coyle.

Coyle, confused, had no relationship with this student, nor did she have sex with this individual. She described the unnamed student as "would not be someone you say hi to in the halls."

So Coyle replied back to the male student who sent the video and the one bragging about sleeping with her, simply asking them to cut it out and leave her out of their "locker room talk."

The next day, Coyle, at the encouragement of her mother who heard the video playing at the dinner table, talked to school counselor Vanessa Jones.

From there, Coyle would fill out a report, detailing the video and how she felt sexually harassed by it. Over the coming days, she'd meet with the district human rights officers, Joe Jezerski and Beth Borgen; high school principal, Todd Herber; the activities director, Bart Gray; and the district superintendent, Karsten Anderson.

After the first couple of meetings, Borgen wasn't around, according to Coyle. Coyle said that she had at least five meetings with administration about the subject, but had Jezerski and Anderson — both men — for the rest of her meetings. In the end, again it was two men — Jezerski and Principal Herber — who called her to the office and said her case didn't fall under the district's definition of sexual harassment.

While she filed an appeal with Anderson, the decision stayed the same.

But Coyle wasn't satisfied.

How does a district address sexual harassment?

As a law in Minnesota, school districts have to revisit certain policies every year. For most, every couple of years.

The discussion about the sexual harassment policy in the Red Wing School District was different this year after Coyle spoke out at the June 18 School Board meeting.

Coyle, who had worked on a sexual harassment campaign for the rest of her senior year, discussed the efforts she took to inform fellow students of what it means to report sexual harassment and abuse.

Along with passing out a change maker pledge that had the signee agree to stand up to sexual harassment and assault, Coyle pointed out issues that she sees with the current policy, most notably, not having a female adult present during every discussion. Coyle said that she would've felt more comfortable to have a woman present during the process.

Her report weighed heavily on the minds of board members when they voted on the harassment and violence policy on Aug. 20.

Changes

The superintendent said the board was planning on reviewing the policy this summer, but after Coyle spoke out, Anderson heard from more concerned students.

But when it came to the discussion on Aug. 20, School Board members Pam Roe and Bethany Borgschatz asked if the district would be able to supply a male and female at every meeting, upon a student's request. Anderson told them he doesn't feel the district could guarantee having a male and female at every meeting.

"I think that's not OK to say we can't guarantee that we can provide a male and female," Roe responded. "That is not OK. If that's something that somebody feels is important, then I think that we do owe it to them to provide that support ... . But for sure, think about it from a 15-year-old girl's perspective, talking to an authority figure who's her principal or her teacher or the superintendent, that's super intimidating. Sometimes another woman in the room can provide that support that they're not crazy, their issue is important and validated."

Anderson responded to Roe's concerns saying in his 25 years in education he feels "it would be extremely challenging to guarantee that would happen. In fact, in some cases with what you just described, it might be better just to have a female speaking with, you know, (a) female student. So I would even disagree right at the beginning that we wouldn't want a male and a female in the room at the same time."

Anderson would later go on to say the prior processes district officials followed have not "been perfect," but has felt the district has been "cognizant" of students complaints and take issues of harassment, bullying and hazing seriously.

Legislative action sought

In phone interview with the Republican Eagle, Anderson said issues of sexual harassment are much different than when he became an educator. Anderson said the reporting process has become more "robust" but they don't get many complaints each year of sexual harassment.

The district is compiling a piece of legislation they would like to submit for state lawmakers' consideration. Anderson said the district feels the Minnesota Human Rights Act has a vague definition of "protected classes" and that harassment is deemed harassment only that if it's "severe and pervasive."

School districts use the Minnesota Human Rights Act as the basis of their harassment policy. Anderson said a legislator is looking to change the rule to not have harassment only determined if it's "severe and pervasive" and hopes to connect with them.

Anderson also said the school district's lawyer has discussed the policy with the Legislative and Policy Committee, saying the district has a sound policy and that they don't need to assume more legal liability than necessary by going away from the state's policy.

The board approved the policy on a 5-2 vote, with Janie Farrar and Roe voting against.

Coyle said she hoped to make an impact on the board after addressing them in June, adding, "seeing that policy changed and seeing them, I guess, have a little bit more awareness about the types of things that go on at the high school, because 'locker room talk' is still normalized as it is."

Rumors, #MeToo and moving on

When it comes to discussing the harassment, Coyle said she has no problem talking about it.

Being able to discuss the incident is what the #MeToo movement is all about, according to Coyle.

The #MeToo movement has grown since starting in 2006. The New York Times and The New Yorker reported on a series of rape and sexual assault allegations made against film producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, the beginning of a flood of women and men coming forward discussing their own instances of abuse in Hollywood and the rest of the world.

The #MeToo movement was created to help survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low-wealth communities, find pathways to healing.

"For me, it's a great movement because it's more focused on sexual assault, but the way that they're just promoting the idea that women can be strong and speak up for themselves and stand up for themselves and that kind of part of it is what made me connect, take the sexual harassment part and build that into the sexual assault part," Coyle said about the #MeToo movement.

Like other survivors of sexual abuse and/or harassment, Coyle was concerned about coming forward, worried she'd be looked at as a victim or even a liar.

Shortly after reporting the incident, Coyle said that one of the students involved with the video sent her a disparaging text message. There also were rumors started about Coyle around school that she had sent nude photos of herself to a fellow student. Coyle said a few people genuinely believed it.

"It was one of those realizations that stories in high school get so distorted," Coyle said. "It wasn't, like, everybody, but it was enough kids that it was, like, 'Wow, I'm going to leave to high school and this is what people are going to be think about me.'"

Coyle isn't focused on the boys' who harassed her; rather, she said she hopes people can learn from her situation.

Coyle has started her freshman year at DePaul University in Chicago where she'll study journalism. She said she plans to join women's groups on campus to continue to be an advocate for the rest of her life.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2018 covering school board, public safety, and writing features. Lambert previously wrote for the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Mass Communication: Journalism. 

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