On a recent evening, Oakland high school girls trickled into a squat portable classroom in a city park to laugh, bond and work on a research project. The group, here for their after-school program run by Girls Inc., chose a harsh topic this semester: rape culture and the over-sexualization of girls of color.
It’s one that resonates with many of the young women here, because sexual harassment is a part of their lives ... at school. Chrisiana Vaughn, a sophomore at Skyline High School, steps into a quiet room to talk about it.
“I would be walking to class and I wouldn't want to be bothered or anything, and somebody will come up to me and hug me,” she shares. “I’d be like, ‘OK, enough is enough, like stop hugging me.' And then they keep hugging me and keep hugging me and won't let me go. Then it gets to the point, like, 'OK, I said stop. Like, stop.'”
Chrisiana is 16 with long hair and a big, warm smile. She says boys often grope and touch girls without their consent while in class. But she’s seen the girls get in trouble when they get fed up and lash out.
“The teacher will have to send her out," Chrisiana says, “instead of, like, asking the boy, ‘What are you doing?’ And sending him out.”
Then there’s the steady stream of sexualized name calling. “Almost every corner you turn,” Chrisiana explains, “you could hear a boy calling a girl a ‘ho.’ I have never heard a teacher ever say, ‘Hey, don't call her a ‘ho.’”
Asked about Chrisiana’s descriptions of harassment, Skyline High School co-principal Nancy Bloom says teachers and staff at Skyline are on the lookout, and when “we know about it, see it, witness it, we absolutely deal with it.” If teachers send girls out of class, she adds, it’s to help maintain a calm learning environment.
But Bloom agrees that sexual harassment occurs at Skyline -- and by her guess, at just about every high school in the country -- and adults have an obligation to help students “learn the right way to navigate the world.”
Chrisiana’s experiences, it turns out, are fairly common districtwide, at least for some students. A few years ago, the Oakland Unified School District participated in a study to better understand the experiences of girls of color. It was conducted by the Alliance for Girls, an Oakland-based nonprofit that brings together dozens of organizations that serve girls in the Bay Area, including the one Chrisiana belongs to.
The study was released in 2016. Its most unexpected finding? Most of the girls who took part in focus groups relayed experiences with sexual harassment, according to Alliance for Girls Executive Director Emma Mayerson. And African-American girls in particular reported being punished and misunderstood when they tried to stand up for themselves.
Chrisiana wasn’t part of the focus groups, but she echoed the findings in just about every way.
“African-American girls,” she says, “it happens to us so often, it's a part of our daily lives.”
At a recent training for educators and advocates throughout the Bay Area who interact with girls of color, Mayerson talked about the study’s findings, as well as the changes they spurred. In focus groups, she told the lunchtime gathering, the girls “spoke to everything from pinching and touching and slapping asses, and also feeling really betrayed by the adults in their life for not stepping in.”
But the study proved a turning point for the school district.
Mayerson said sexual harassment is endemic in schools across the country. “What’s different about Oakland Unified is they chose to face that reality, and even more so to work with us in passing a new sexual harassment policy that was deeply responsive to what young women of color were saying," she says.
The district’s Board of Education passed the new policy last summer, with a ton of input from community groups, district officials and the girls themselves. It spells out what constitutes harassment -- from unwanted leering and name-calling, to spreading of sexual rumors and, of course, battery. Schools have to provide mental health support to accusers, and look into whether there’s a systemic problem.
And students who file complaints now have a right to know what’s happening throughout the process. Because under the old policy, Mayerson said, “they’d report an incident and then just not hear back, not hear back, not hear back. Nothing.”
Changing the culture across schools sounds challenging for a district facing a serious budget crisis. But the students are leading the way.
After the report’s release, Oakland Unified launched an initiative called African American Female Excellence to focus on the needs of girls. (It’s a counterpart to African American Male Achievement, the district’s decade-long effort to support and nurture black boys.)
African American Female Excellence is run by Nzingha Dugas, who plans to soon dispatch young women from her program into the schools. They’ll serve as peer educators or trainers to lead workshops and help craft skits about sexual harassment.
“What we can do,” Dugas said at her office at a West Oakland Middle School, “is we can create a culture of learning and understanding and support, and it makes it OK and safe for the adults to say, 'Actually this is not tolerable, but not only that, we’re gonna teach you what is the right behavior.'”
The district has already trained 95 percent of its school principals on the new policy, according to a spokesman. And Skyline’s Nancy Bloom will get trained later this month.
But when I talked to Skyline sophomore Chrisiana Vaughn, she was skeptical that much could change. Then, she let herself begin to imagine what a school free from sexual harassment might look like.
“I feel like we would be able to walk around the school, like, without our backpacks hanging down low to cover us,” Chrisiana says, “or, you know, having to be aware of who's around you all the time.”
A few weeks ago, Chrisiana made a big decision. She left Skyline High School. She’s now attending a continuation school for girls only so she can catch up on credits with what she says are way fewer distractions. This fall, she plans to enroll in an Oakland charter school.