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Making a statement

About 50 Ashland High School students and a few adults squeezed into two Ashland School District office buildings adjacent to the high school, chanted “Stop the violence, break the silence,” and sang songs in an effort to send a message to the district Monday, a week after a student’s widely circulated social media post about an alleged sexual assault prompted a response from the school.

The sit-in, organized by Ashland High’s “Got Consent?” co-founders Bella Head and Nicole Locklin, began at noon between district office buildings when Head, a 16-year-old junior, read a one-page public statement that slammed the high school’s handling of sexual assault survivors and its response to reports of sexual violence. She accused the school of breaking the law by failing to comply with Title IX requirements.

Head said the students want "a district-specific training and a clearly defined group of people in charge of investigations and compliance; an established system for students to work with trained, confidential advocates to understand options; and the school to understand that a criminal investigation does not relieve them of their Title IX obligations, and the two are not related.”

Among the protesters were co-student body presidents Amelia Zeve and Kate Joss-Bradley. Zeve, daughter of Ashland School Board member Deneice Covert-Zeve, said Monday’s sit-in was an opportunity for the student body to make a statement and she was pleased that so many students took the time to do so.

“I think that definitely the real power of the school lies within the students,” she said. “We have a lot of people at this high school who have been affected by sexual assault, they’ve been survivors of sexual assault, they’ve risen above it … so I think when we have a community effort like this where people are standing up and speaking out against this stuff, that’s where the real power is. Because the community isn’t looking to see how the school responds. They’re looking to see how the students’ respond. Because this is our school, these are our classmates. The girls who have been assaulted and affected, they are our peers, they are our friends. We care about them.”

Interim Superintendent Suzanne Cusick pulled into the parking lot during the sit-in.

“As long as their behavior is appropriate, we certainly respect their right to express their opinion about this,” she said.

Cusick said she’s received a number of emails — fewer than 10 — about the original Facebook post and the fallout since it was posted Dec. 5 and defended the district’s Title IX compliance.

“We follow Title IX as closely as we can, and that means doing an investigation immediately when an incident is reported,” she said.

Cusick, who said she had read the original Facebook post, which has since been taken down, and called it “pretty horrifying,” also encouraged concerned parents, students, community members and victims to call her directly, something she said so far has not been done.

“Because unless I have a direct conversation with people,” Cusick said, “I can’t control the rumors or what’s being posted, obviously, but I do want to follow up. We have three daughters and a son of our own. I want to follow up and, really, emotional and physical safety of our students is of paramount concern to us.”

Cusick said she’s been in contact with Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara and that APD’s investigation is running concurrently with the district’s own. Typically, the district’s investigation is handled in-house by an administrator, but not in this case.

“We have several trained investigators — administrators who have been trained in Title IX issues,” she said. “But in this case, because it was so complex and became such a community discussion, we went with a third-party trained Title IX investigator. … And we do that because it could be perceived that we have bias, it could be perceived that we’re not as well trained as somebody from the outside. And it’s also possible and likely that our current administrators who have huge full-time jobs don’t have as much time to dedicate to interviewing all the individuals.”

Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.

Students stage a sit-in Monday at Ashland High School to protest the administration's handling of reports of sexual assaults. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta