Students at Baltimore School for the Arts share stories of sexual harassment and assault
Amid allegations that officials have minimized and mishandled years of reported harassment, groping, assault and more, City Schools officials are pledging to investigate
Above: Baltimore School for the Arts students Ruth Dawit and Sydney Lane-Ryer, administrators of the survivorsofbsa Instagram page. (Fern Shen)
There are places at the Baltimore School for the Arts that female students know can be dangerous.
“The back stairwell. The elevator. So many people squeeze in, you can get lost in there. Some guy will touch you and the others won’t know,” said Sydney Lane-Ryer, a 16-year-old junior at the visual and performing arts-oriented magnet school in Mount Vernon.
Stories of female students being sexually harassed, groped, bullied and assaulted by male classmates have piled up with alarming speed on a recently created Instagram account, survivorsofbsa.
The posts are mostly anonymous, but the stories are strikingly similar.
Grabbed me by my hair and pushed my head down toward his lap as a ‘”joke”… started to put his hand down to my private area but I pushed him away… sitting next to me and out of nowhere grabbed my thigh.
The accounts tell of acts ranging from lewd remarks and online harassment to being “pinned to the wall” of the school stairwell to rapes that were primarily said to have taken place off-campus.
Another recurring allegation: Nearly all the posts describe school administrators dismissing or mishandling the reported harassment and abuse.
Several victims said they were belittled or blamed for dressing too provocatively.
“She told me next time I should wear something a little more appropriate to avoid this happening,” one person said, describing an administrator’s reaction after a male classmate mocked her for wearing leggings and then slapped her bottom.
Many were hurt and angry to discover their harasser received little to no punishment and went on to victimize others. After reporting the harassment, several said, they were were subjected to more abuse as retaliation.
The assistant principal “told me next time I should wear something a little more appropriate to avoid this happening” – BSA student’s post.
In another case, a girl said administrators brought her into the same room with her attacker after she reported that he had grabbed her, groped her and lifted her up until she screamed for him to let her down.
They “made me explain everything he did to me while he was there. It was extremely uncomfortable,” she wrote.
No Action or Follow-Up
Since its debut, the page has prompted concern from alumni and parents, some of whom say that inadequate responses and outdated thinking about sexual harassment and abuse go back years at the school.
“I’ve never seen action or follow-up,” said Elena Volkova, whose daughter graduated four years ago.
Among the issues Volkova told The Brew she reported was her daughter’s experience of being sexually harassed, assaulted “and, I later learned, almost raped.”
School officials were dismissive toward her daughter, she said, and never provided any assurance that other students were being protected from her daughter’s abuser.
Director: “I am sorry”
Since BSA junior Ruth Dawit created the Instagram account on March 23 and Lane-Ryer joined her to help administer it, 865 people have followed the page and 156 posts have been left there.
In response, the school’s director, Chris Ford, sent out a March 25 email to the BSA community that began by expressing surprise and contrition.
“We were horrified not simply because of the pain students experienced at the moment but the impact and scars many of those individuals feel today. I am sorry,” he wrote.
Ford, the school’s top administrator for the last decade, also defended his actions.
“Please know that I took the most assertive disciplinary steps possible based on the tools at my disposal in many of those cases. It wasn’t enough, and I am not saying that each one was the best decision in hindsight,” Ford wrote, promising to review past cases and determine policy changes going forward.
“I took the most assertive disciplinary steps possible based on the tools at my disposal in many of those cases. It wasn’t enough” – Chris Ford, school director.
Ford and assistant principal for student support Mary Evans, who is widely criticized on the Instagram account, have not yet responded to The Brew’s requests for comment.
Also posted on survivorsofbsa is a statement for parents and the media provided by Baltimore City Public Schools officials, who have not yet responded to The Brew’s request for any additional comment.
“The conduct described in the allegations is disturbing and completely unacceptable,” chief of schools John L. Davis Jr. wrote in the emailed update.
Davis promised that counseling and support would be offered to students when they return from spring break tomorrow, that “additional educational opportunities and resources regarding bullying and harassment” would be provided in the future, and that steps to address the issues raised will be announced “in the coming days.”
Noting that many of the posts were anonymous, making follow-up difficult, he urged students to report harassment or misconduct to school or North Avenue officials, providing a phone number and a link to the “online bullying, harassment, and intimidation form.”
** FULL TEXT OF STATEMENTS FROM BSA AND BCPS ARE PROVIDED BELOW **
“Swept under the rug”
Speaking with The Brew, Dawit and Lane-Ryer said City Schools’ response has been “inadequate” because it didn’t acknowledge school leaders repeated failures to act.
Dawit said she started survivorsofbsa because of conversations students had in March, Women’s History Month, and because she was upset to see a reported harasser continue to victimize others.
“I’ve experienced this myself, and I’ve watched it happen,” she said.
“A lot of female and some trans students have felt they could not come forward because they’ve heard the stories where it was swept under the rug,” she continued. “But if action were taken, then it wouldn’t happen to the next girl.”
As Lane-Ryer sees it, the boys are not being held accountable, “They just don’t take it seriously when they see there are no consequences.”
Dawit agreed. “The administrators think the problem is that these boys don’t understand the concept of consent. They know what consent is. They just don’t care!”
She and Dawit also say the adults’ responses so far haven’t addressed their calls for new school leadership and stiffer penalties for abusers.
Specifically, they want Evans to resign and the school to institute a policy of zero tolerance for sexual harassment and abuse. A petition calling for Evans to step down has 386 signatures.
Ford, who started in 1981 at BSA as a saxophone teacher, previously announced that he would be retiring at the end of the 2020/21 school year.
Even the school’s sharpest critics praise it as a special place with excellent teachers who have nurtured famous alumni, from Jada Pinkett Smith and Tupac Shakur to the rising star actress, Moses Ingram.
What else do they think new leadership should do about the problems at BSA? Listen to the students and don’t talk down to them, Dawit and Lane-Ryer said.
They also recommended bringing in “outside experts,” recalling in-house sessions provided by City Schools, aimed at making teachers more sensitive about race, that did little to make a difference on the issue.
“They say, ‘we will investigate, we will do better,’ but you can’t expect victims to trust you after all this,” said Dawit, who believes there are racial issues to be resolved at the school as well.
“Women of color – girls with curvier bodies – are targeted more for dress code violations,” she observed. “Skinnier girls, white girls, can wear the same spaghetti straps, same clothes and get away with it.”
A teacher at the school, who asked not to be publicly identified, said administrators also should have more enlightened attitudes to transgender students.
“I experienced Mary Evans being dismissive of trans students’ pronouns in a pretty offensive way,” the teacher said.
Volkova, a teacher as well as a parent, said that while greater clarity and accountability is needed on sexual harassment and assault, punishment is not a panacea.
“We need to understand that these students bring trauma they have experienced. How are we as a society going to deal with this issue?” she said. “There is a culture of punishment and probation and being kicked out of school, and that’s not really solving the problem.”
Lane-Ryer just sees the issue in terms of safety.
“It’s an amazing school, with some teachers who have been really supportive,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking that there are students who don’t feel safe there.”
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SOME OF THE POSTS ON survivorsofbsa:
From: Chris Ford
Sent: Thursday, March 25, 2021 12:05 PM
Subject: [BSA] Important Message to BSA Community
Dear BSA Community,
Like many of you, the leadership team here at BSA visited the Instagram page that detailed past and recent cases of sexual misconduct at our school. We were horrified not simply because of the pain students experienced at the moment but the impact and scars many of those individuals feel today. I am sorry.
As both the father of a former BSA student and the school principal, I stand with you. So do our faculty and staff members, many of whom visited Instagram and left feeling sickened, disgusted, and more motivated than ever to help those young women that were harmed. Those Instagram posts directly result from students who don’t feel BSA has protected or supported them. In this place of reflection, we must think anew about how to help anyone harmed in our school.
Today I met with City Schools administrators to begin to chart a path forward. We are exploring ways within Board policy to remove or more strongly discipline students that assault others. We reviewed the information on Instagram to determine what occurred in each case and the responsible students.
In cases where more decisive action can be taken, I promise you we will do so. Please know that I took the most assertive disciplinary steps possible based on the tools at my disposal in many of those cases. It wasn’t enough, and I am not saying that each one was the best decision in hindsight. Now, thanks to your voice, we have a stronger idea of what action must be taken, and we have the support of City Schools to get it done.
I also firmly believe that more punishment is not the complete solution. We can do better in supporting people who are harmed inside the BSA community, including the accused with life experiences that made such acts seem normal. While we’ve been closed due to the pandemic, a faculty team has been trained in Restorative Justice. I hope that provides some tools to give victims and the accused what they need to grow as humans and treat others with respect. That is one of the several steps we must take.
Our faculty is in active discussions to determine what else can be done, and we will seek the thoughts of a variety of constituents as we develop a plan.
We finished a meeting on Wednesday with many faculty to discuss this issue and how to move to a better place. I am confident that our entire community is devoted to this work and improving every student’s experience and safety. I am also sure that, because of these fine colleagues’ commitment, this work will continue well into the future as we seek to make BSA a better place for everyone.
I am deeply sorry for the pain these incidents and the school’s response to them have caused. I know you have provided the energy to help us do better as a school for our students.
From: Baltimore City Public Schools
Date: March 31, 2021 at 5:29:22 PM EDT
To: Baltimore City Public Schools Recipients
Subject: An important message for the BSA community
Dear Baltimore School of The Arts community and friends,
In recent days, members of the Baltimore School of the Arts (BSA) community have shared social media posts involving allegations of sexual harassment, assault, abuse, and bullying that involve current and former BSA students. The conduct described in the allegations is disturbing and completely unacceptable.
The BSA leadership team is developing a plan to address the concerns in those posts clearly and thoughtfully, and will update you in the coming days. At the same time, Baltimore City Public Schools recognizes the courage that it takes to publicly share these painful and personal experiences.
We want to assure you that City Schools is taking immediate action to address these allegations. The following information has been requested by members of the news media; we are also sharing it with you as an update:
• City Schools staff will thoroughly investigate all allegations of sexual harassment and other sexual misconduct involving our schools and students. As required by law, we will report to and collaborate with law enforcement and other external agencies.
• City Schools staff in the Department of Fair Practices will work with the BSA school administration to conduct a review of any allegations that were previously reported to ensure that the prior response appropriately reflected the severity of the circumstances and to identify any follow-up actions necessary to effectively address the effects of the sexual misconduct and prevent its reoccurrence.
• Upon BSA students’ return from Spring Break, BSA and City Schools will offer counseling and support to any student or former student who requests it through the school.
• Some of the social medial posts were anonymous, making it difficult to connect the information to prior incidents or follow up with students directly. If students have any information about these or any other incidents, or if any student has experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, they should report immediately. Students or their parents/guardians may submit a report directly to their school administration. Or they may use the online bullying, harassment, and intimidation form, available at this link: https://www.baltimorecityschools.org/bullying. Or they may report directly to City Schools’ EEO Manager and Title IX Coordinator by phone at 410-396-8542, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
• City Schools is committed to a fair process where all students involved will be provided an opportunity to address any allegations of sexual harassment or other sexual misconduct. Our investigations will follow the protocols set forth in Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners Policy JBB (Sex-Based Discrimination – Students) and Policy JICK (Bullying, Harassment, or Intimidation of Students). The Board recently updated Policy JBB to streamline our reporting and investigation processes and ensure alignment with recent updates to federal regulations implementing Title IX of the of the Educational Amendments of 1972. To promote effective implementation of these policy revisions, City Schools will provide additional training to staff at BSA and all of our school staff.
• In addition, the BSA school administration will provide students with additional educational opportunities and resources regarding bullying and harassment. The school will form an advisory group to provide feedback and ideas from students, parents, staff, alumni, and others.
For BSA and all of City Schools, the safety and well-being of all our students is our top priority, and we remain committed to ensuring all our students feel connected to school learning environments that are safe and supportive and facilitate their ability to actively engage, thrive, and fulfill their tremendous potential.
Thank you for your support and attention. Please stay safe.
Chief of Schools
Baltimore City Public Schools