Students own their truth about overcoming barriers at conference
By Judy Ly
Imagine being afraid to come to school every day because a male student is stalking and harassing you on a daily basis. Imagine being too scared to reach out for help from your mom because she has been diagnosed with stage four cancer and your father is absent.
This was the reality for a student speaker, who asked to be referred to as Bella, in the workshop Respect Lab: Tell Your Truth! at University of California, Santa Cruz’s Communities of Color Career Conference on Feb. 9. She shared a story of her own interaction with the school administration in her freshman year at Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, when her stalker was also assaulting her.
When Bella reached out to her mentor about her stalker, her mentor responded by saying the male student simply had a crush on her. The mentor system is where every student at a Summit school is assigned, in their freshman year, a mentor group and a mentor. Summit faculty, usually teachers, aim to act as a guidance and emotional support system for mentees.
Out of fear of causing her mom stress and negatively affecting her mom’s health, Bella felt like she couldn’t reach out to her mom. To avoid her reality of having a stalker, she became dependent on alcohol.
Eventually when her mom was in remission, they both had a meeting with the school’s principal in an attempt to resolve the conflict. The following day, Bella was placed into a room with her stalker and one other teacher, where the teacher then asked, “What can you both do to fix this situation?”
“I don’t know. What can I do? What can I do to make him leave me alone? I will do it, just tell me,” Bella remembered saying. The stalker denied everything, claiming that he didn’t know who she was and that he never done anything to her.
Bella continued to explain how the stalker would physically assault her and leave bruises all over her body: “He would hit me; he would punch me; he would slap me. At one point, I had a bruise on my leg the size of a baseball, and he denied everything.”
Alongside her mom, Bella filed a lawsuit against the principal because no proper actions were being taken about her situation, and she then transferred to Summit Everest. On her new campus, she noted that she stopped drinking because she felt like there was no reason to do so anymore.
She concluded by claiming that the school administration had failed to effectively help female victims: “Through this entire thing, I learned that school administration is not necessarily the way it should be. They victimize a lot more female students than they do male. Male students, who are perpetrators, tend to not be punished for what they did.”
She added that this kind of behavior has been seen in other cases: “We saw this in the Brock Turner case; we’ve seen this consistently with so many other cases, and nothing really happens to them. So the next thing we need to do is we need to figure out how we can help the victims and stop blaming them for what happens.”
The Brock Turner case got so much negative attention that the judge, who sentenced Turner to jail for six months after sexually assaulting an unconscious woman near a dumpster, got recalled.
While it is difficult to find statistics for gender bias and victimization within school administration, gender bias and victim blaming are very prevalent in sexual violence cases. The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports gender bias can unfairly and negatively affect victims in court such as “holding battered mothers to higher standards of parenting and behavior than fathers” and “stereotyping women as hysterical and unreasonable.” They also state, “Research tells us that the majority of domestic violence victims are female, therefore, gender is a pertinent issue when talking about how systems handle domestic violence cases.”
In a report done by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, they stated, “Across 50 states, estimates of lifetime rape victimization of women ranged from 12.2% to 26.3%.”
The workshop was the first time Bella was telling her story out loud to an audience. By doing so, she was practicing one of the Respect Basics: Telling Your Truth. The terminology of Respect Basics was coined by the Respect Institute, a national nonprofit that focuses on creating resources for youth to evolve their self-respect and have respect be the status quo. The resources are then spread to the youth through the Respect Labs.
Lissa Thiele, a juvenile justice commissioner in Santa Clara County and an instructor at Summit Public Schools, said, “The point of the Respect Labs then is to practice taking things that really are called barriers to thrive and to be able to take some of the invisible barriers and make turn them into something that is visible.” Ms. Thiele added that turning invisible barriers visible will not get rid of them yet; however, for the students who plan to pursue postsecondary education and employment, the barriers need to be taken in consideration because “chances are, those barriers were not put there by [the students].”
Courtney Macavinta, the co-founder and CEO of the Respect Institute, was referenced in the presentation to explain why Telling Your Truth is important: “Sometimes telling your truth is a quiet act. It’s about being true to yourself and not being fake. Telling your truth helps you learn from your experiences, accept yourself more and recover from disrespect. So be honest about who you are and where you’ve been. If you’ve been hurt, tell your story to someone who can help. When you’re stronger, tell your story to others to help them. When you’ve learned something powerful that can benefit us all, Tell Your Truth far and wide to help the world.”
Student speaker Taylor Amper presented about the gender bias in victim blaming and the barriers students with a conviction history will face when applying for employment.
One story that was shared was of a high school student in Santa Clara County who sent vulnerable pictures of herself to an older guy she was dating at the time. The man then leaked the photos, and the images spread around campus. Soon, police got involved.
The high school student was charged with committing a crime because she was a minor when she took the pictures of herself and sent it to her boyfriend. At the time, she did not know yet, but she would later be charged with child porn distribution. The story ended with the man not getting in trouble with school administration.
In the high school student’s case, she pondered if she was a victim or perpetrator. Amper said that is the issue with the justice system: the high school student was the one who was exposed and seen throughout her school: “The issue here is that the justice system likes to blame the victim for something that they didn’t know what they were doing or something that is out of their control. The justice system, most of the time, wants to defend the men that commit these crimes.”
Amper commented that stories like these do not define the individual as a whole; however, when employers are looking at the applications, they don’t get to see or hear the whole story.
On job applications, there is a box asking applicants if they have a criminal history. This box is the first thing the employer sees when reviewing applications. The applicants are then judged based on their conviction history and not on their qualifications as an applicant; the label of a conviction automatically disqualifies the applicant during the selection process. This creates a barrier for people with the label of a criminal history to be employed.
In the case of the high school student, the first thing employers see is her record for distribution of child porn. The applicant doesn’t get an opportunity to explain the conviction was during her freshman year, when she sent vulnerable pictures of herself to her boyfriend at the time, who then leaked it to their peers.
According to the Sentencing Project, by the age of 23, one-third of adults in the United States have been arrested. They also stated, “More than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed one year after being released; those who do find jobs take home 40 percent less pay annually.”
Starting in 2004, The Ban the Box Campaign was started to advocate for employers to choose their applicants based on their past job experiences first. A chain of Peace and Justice Community Summits recognized that people coming back from incarnation faced discrimination when trying to find employment in addition to housing, due to their record.
The Society of Human Resources reported that some states have since then took the initiative to ban the box on the application completely, while some states refine their policy to have a more fair hiring process. For example, some states’ law makes it so employers can only request a background check after a conditional job offer is made.
Ms. Thiele added, “This is not something in which we are saying, ‘Get rid of a criminal background check.’ That’s absolutely 100 percent not what we are saying, but rather that the first step of this should not be that, and we do talk about changing the narrative.
When you have women who are incarcerated, and we say, ‘This woman is incarcerated; she’s incarcerated; she’s a prisoner.’ Why don’t we start by saying, ‘This woman is a daughter. This woman is — she’s incarcerated but that’s not the first thing. She’s a mom, she’s a daughter, she’s a cousin.’ Why don’t we start that way?”
There were also three videos briefly shown during the workshop. The first one was The Girl Effect: The Clock is Ticking, where the video explores the barriers young girls living in poverty can encounter and empowers them to rise up through those barriers. The other two videos focused on “two different women of colors’ journey in telling their truths and finding success with navigating a path through education and careers,” as stated in the slideshow used for the workshop.
When asked what her favorite part of the workshop was, UCSC Career Coach Christina Hall said hearing the student stories: “It’s so inspiring to be there when somebody is in this moment of courage and they’re really sort of like willing to put themselves out there, because if these things happen to them, something similar has happened to other people, and, I think the more you hear stories about these things, the more it’s normalized.” She also said she hopes that as more of these stories get told, more people realize they are not alone and can ask for help.
After the workshop, Maria Viveros, a second-year UCSC transfer student who is majoring in neuroscience said, “I just felt that like being a woman of color also connected — I was also connected to that part of it because I felt that we, as woman in this society, face many barriers in that aspect and even though we have different stories, many of those barriers that we do face are very similar. If you’re a woman of color, if you are an unrepresented person or just undocumented and just living in poverty all those are very — aspects that many, many people could connect to, and I feel like that’s what makes us connected to one another.”
Featured image (at the top of this post): The reporter (far right) is pictured with Lissa Thiele and her Respect Lab interns: (left to right) Prep senior Robert Wilds, Everest alumni Emily Hallamasek, Rainier senior Taylor Amper, Commissioner Lissa Thiele, Everest senior Bella and Rainier senior Allison Alpuerto.
Click this link for the Google slides used in the workshop.