‘Safer in school’: How students led the overhaul of sexual harassment protections in Shelby County Schools

Students stand shoulder to shoulder holding signs  in support of sexual violence survivors: “Stop Rape. No more excuses,” “Shame and blame belong only to the rapists,” “No more ‘We don’t talk about that!’ Yes we do!” “We say no more!” “No more ‘not my problem!” “Tigers say no more domestic violence!” “Know your rights” “Memphis dice, no mas”
Students in advocacy organization Bridges’ cohort to reform sexual harassment and violence protections participate in the “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” march at the University of Memphis in 2018. (Gillian Wenhold / Bridges)

Shelby County Schools leaders recently revised how the Memphis district handles sexual harassment complaints after pressure from former and current students who championed the change starting four years ago. 

The district hired a full-time coordinator last year to investigate complaints under federal Title IX requirements instead of adding those responsibilities to another position. More recently, the district’s policy added clear definitions of sexual harassment, consent, and discrimination. 

“This is a topic that people aren’t talking about,” said Caitlin Lloyd, who was a part of the initial student group during the 2015-16 school year and is now in college. 

Sexual harassment and sexual violence at K-12 schools is a growing concern nationally and can severely affect student learning. The trauma can hinder students’ ability to concentrate in school, especially if they still have to interact with an aggressor who has not suffered any consequences. 

For students living in poverty who already struggle to receive the academic support they need, like most Memphis students do, this trauma can set them back further. And federal crime data shows children and people with low incomes are much more likely to be victims of sexual assault.

Becca Folkes-Lallo is now a student at Rhodes College in Memphis. (Shreya Visvanathan)

The Memphis student group’s effort began in 2016, after several of Becca Folkes-Lallo’s classmates confided in her that they had been sexually harassed at school. She picked up the phone to figure out who was responsible for investigating the incidents. Folks-Lallo, then a junior at White Station High, recalled being transferred several times and hanging up the phone more frustrated than when she started. The district’s website now includes who to contact when reporting an incident.

“I remember the helplessness I felt. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to help you,’” Folkes-Lallo said of conversations with friends who experienced sexual harassment. “I don’t even know what to call what happened to you. I know that it’s wrong and it hurts me and seeing you hurt, hurts me. But I didn’t know.”

Folks-Lallo then got together with peers from student advocacy organization Bridges to talk about what to do next. After hosting workshops defining sexual harassment, the students surveyed about 200 peers across Shelby County Schools. They found more than half said they had been harassed at least once and 19% said they were harassed often or very often.

Tennessee’s rate of sexual assault allegations was the 10th highest in the nation during the 2015-16 school year, the U.S. Department of Education reported. The total number of sexual harassment complaints K-12 students reported to the federal department last year was nearly 15 times higher than a decade ago. 

When Kamren Henderson joined the group during the 2018-19 school year, students slowly began meeting with the district’s highest officials to present their ideas. 

“We kind of pushed ourselves in the door,” he recalled. They quickly found out that systemic change would take careful planning.

“It was complex. It was hard. It was weighty,” he said.

In 2019, the district hired Mary Tucker as the Title IX coordinator for Shelby County Schools, as students began meeting more often with district leaders after raising awareness among students. 

“When students are faced with discrimination, their social emotional health and well-being are at risk as well as their ability to learn,” Tucker said in a joint statement with Bridges. “These efforts help ensure the district supports the whole child as they work toward academic success.” 

As the new policy started to form, the group began holding periodic “Survivor Power Hour” sessions where students could share with each other their own stories of sexual harassment and violence, and learn more about ways to get involved in the campaign. They also networked with other students across the nation who have pushed for similar policy reforms. 

When the group found out about the new policy approved by the school board this summer, some students cried, while others cheered. Still, they said there’s much to do to make sure students and teachers understand the policy. 

“It’s clear how this policy protects students,” said Folkes-Lallo. She’s grateful for the accomplishment, but can’t help wishing it would have happened sooner. “I would have felt safer in school.”

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