Rumours of student sexual assault prompts MSS walkout and parent is concerned that high school administration intimidated the protestors

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M’CHIGEENG—A group of Manitoulin Secondary School (MSS) students, alarmed at what they perceive as a lack of action by Rainbow District School Board (RDSB) in response to reports of sexual assault, staged a protest walkout recently.

“The kids organized it,” said parent John Ferguson of Kagawong, himself a social worker. “My daughter Hailey was one of the organizers.”

“What bothered me the most was the reaction of the school administrators,” he said. “I understand the need to make sure everybody is safe,” but he said he felt the school administration’s reaction was needlessly heavy-handed. “They kept them in the office for two- to two-and-a-half hours trying to dissuade them,” he said. Parents of the students involved were contacted by the school administration as part of the effort to sideline the protest.

“Despite the RDSB and MSS administration trying to stop them, the teens went ahead and held a walk (and short school walkout) in which more than 50 students participated,” said Mr. Ferguson. “As a result, (students have been assured) the school will be having workshops about consent and sexual assault. This is entirely due to the students who organized the walkout. I am very proud that the teens were able to accomplish this, even with the administration and principal doing their best to scare and threaten them and to subsequently make at least one of the young organizers apologize.” MSS did, in fact, hold workshops on those subjects in the following weeks.

“Sexual assault is a major problem for teens and a topic that I assumed the school board and school administration would want to encourage awareness of; however, this was not the case,” said Mr. Ferguson. “Instead, school administration (following discussions with the school board) repeatedly told the teens that they were ‘disappointed’ in them. They even had the nerve to tell the teens’ parents that they were disappointed in the kids.”

“The school wasn’t pleased,” agreed Hailey. “We were told that if someone got really upset, we would be held responsible.” Hailey and her colleagues held their ground, however, noting the provisions of the Criminal Code did not support the argument. “They kept saying it,” she said, referring to school administrators, noting that the police officers pulled back from the claim that the students would be held responsible for personal upsets.

Hailey explained that she and her friends were concerned over rumours that allegations of sexual assault did not seem to be adequately responded to by the school, resulting in students not feeling safe.

“I must admit my own feelings of disappointment with the school board and administration for how they have dismissed these kids and their intentions,” said Mr. Ferguson, “even more disappointed in their desire to not address the topic of sexual assault among teens—going so far as to allow the organizers to think that there could be legal repercussions if they proceeded with their protest. It is sad how opposed they were to a protest against sexual assault among students.”

In the end, the students decided to go ahead with their walkout, proceeding from the school to just past the UCCM Anishnaabe Police Services station and back to the nearby M’Chigeeng beach, where they spoke about their concerns, told stories about experiences without identifying anyone and talked about consent and what that means. “We provided trigger warnings,” noted Hailey.

“We had time left, so we decided to walk back to the police station and back again,” added Hailey.

The students took care to not invade anyone’s privacy and made efforts to not cause triggers for anyone who might have experienced sexual assault, she explained.

The students timed their walkout to cause the least disruption to the school day and refrained from returning to class afterward in order to not cause disturbance.

Hailey said that the school has indicated that the presentations that were given at the school after their walkout were not related to their actions. “They said it wasn’t because of us, but they brought in people to talk about consent and sexual assault the next week.”

The Expositor reached out to RDSB seeking comment on the issue and the board’s reaction to the event.

The RDSB communications office sent the following reply: “Rainbow District School Board values student voices. Students may express their viewpoint in a peaceful manner that does not expose students and others to risks involving health and safety, result in the destruction of property and hinder the operation of schools.

“When school administration learned about a potential walkout regarding sexual assault awareness, they followed up with organizers. We encouraged students not to interrupt student learning. While we value student voices, we do not condone that students miss classes to participate in walkouts. 

“We encourage students to find other means to have their voices heard. For instance, participation in information/education workshops delivered by organizations with expertise in the topic of interest. 

“When students indicated their continued interest in hosting a walkout, our focus was on safety.”

Asked if the administration detained students in the office with threats of retaliation should they go through with their plans, the RDSB replied: “When students indicated their wish to host a walkout, administrators worked with them to clarify the purpose of the walkout, ensure student safety, learn about the activities planned, engage in dialogue to gain context, and ensure students had accurate information.

“Sexual assault is a sensitive subject that can involve legal ramifications, privacy implications, reputational damage and emotional impact. Raising awareness of sexual assault may have unintended consequences, therefore, it’s important that students who may have experienced this trauma be supported. School administrators worked with walkout organizers to ensure they had a level of awareness of the potential impacts.”

Asked if the administration claimed the students would be responsible for any self-harm that might be triggered by the protest, RDSB responded “The OPP indicated that students could be liable if something happened as a result of the walkout” and requested The Expositor speak with the OPP for their perspective.

Asked if the administration had called in police officers to interview the students, RDSB responded: “Administration invited police partners to the school to talk to students about the safety aspects of the walkout, including road safety, personal information, and legal aspects.”

Asked if parents called as their children were being detained and interviewed, RDSB responded: “Parents/guardians of the organizers were called to inform them that their children had indicated an intention to participate in a walkout, which means missing classes. Privacy concerns were also addressed. Students, parents and guardians need to be aware that a walkout is not a school sanctioned activity. Administration is responsible for ensuring students are safe on and off of school property. When students participate in a walkout, this diverts staff from the school as they are required to monitor student safety.”

In response to the concerns expressed by the students, RDSB responded: “When students expressed an interest in creating awareness, school administrators suggested that hosting workshops as part of a school event, with trained counsellors available on site, would be a more effective way of sharing information.”

As a result, MSS “welcomed community partners to the school on Friday, June 10. Manitoulin Family Resources, Mnaamodzawin Health Services and Mnidoo Mnising Crisis Response Team delivered presentations to students about sexual assault. The presentations focused on facts and myths, consent and coping strategies. During lunch, students had an opportunity to visit booths to learn more about resources and services available in the community as well as speak to professionals individually.”

Asked what actions RDSB has taken to address alleged sexual assaults taking place at the school, RDSB responded, “Any alleged sexual assaults would be addressed within the board’s Code of Conduct with the support of police. The Code of Conduct is available on the board website.”

The OPP confirmed that they did send two officers to the school at the request of MSS administration. A request for clarification on the allegations made by the students received the following response. “The OPP remains committed to protecting the public, keeping the peace, upholding the law and preserving public safety,” responded Community Safety Officer Provincial Constable Tessa Kasch on behalf of the Manitoulin OPP detachment. “The main goal of the OPP is to maintain public safety for those individuals who wish to express their freedoms, as well as for the travelling public. We will take the appropriate actions to ensure public safety for all individuals.”

Hailey said she was reluctant to speak on behalf of all of the students who took part, being just one of a number of organizers, but that they hoped their actions would lead to positive outcomes and a better understanding of what constitutes sexual assault, consent and how assaults impact everyone in the school community and beyond.