Trigger Warning for rape apologism/denialism and discussions of sexual violence and rape culture.
School is supposed to be a safe place for students to learn and interact with their peers. But as far too marginalized persons know, schools frequently present an environment that is the exact opposite, from being sites of sexualized gender-based violence, to racialized violence, to homophobic and transphobic violence, and other forms of physical assault and emotional injury. Too often, we think of harassment and violence in schools as “the way things are” — how they have always been, how they will always be, and something we are all helpless to change. Rarely do we recognize that these kinds of traumas don’t have to be a part of growing up, but are usually just an exaggerated (or usually exaggerated) reflection of what takes place in adult spaces.
And even more rarely do we discuss how the schools themselves, those tasked to protect students and make schools a safe place, are actively reinforcing and/or perpetuating violence themselves.
This weekend, Amandaw linked to an article on her Tumblr about a lawsuit in which a school allegedly made a rape victim “bait” in a “sting operation” to catch teens “having sex” after school. But it gets worse. Because Upper St. Clair High School failed to provide safe exit from the school to the victim, as one responsible teacher originally proposed, and instead forced her to stay on school grounds, she was raped again, along with another girl.
According to the brief by the student’s attorney, on Feb. 4, 2008, the girl went to one of her teachers, Esther von Waldow, and told her that a boy, with whom she’d had previous problems, had forced her to have sex with him after school. The Post-Gazette does not identify victims of sexual assault and has not identified the accused rapist, who pleaded guilty in juvenile court to sexual assault.
The girl told Ms. von Waldow that he forced another student to have sex, as well.
Ms. von Waldow, according to the brief, immediately went to school administrators with concerns and offered several options to make sure the girls in question got home safely. They included offering herself to walk the girls to their school bus.
But, the filing said, school Principal Michael Ghilani had a different idea.
“Instead, Ghilani wanted to keep Jane Doe on school property and not let her leave. Ghilani’s plan, known as the ‘sting operation,’ was to use Jane Doe as ‘bait’ to lead the school administrators to [the boy] and perhaps other girls.”
According to a court filing submitted by the school district, Dr. Ghilani didn’t believe that the students were in danger or that any safety concerns were present. Instead, he thought students were having consensual sex in school after hours.
He devised a plan to have school police officers follow the students in question to determine who they were and where they were going.
“Security personnel followed the students. Whether the sexual activity was alleged to be consensual or nonconsensual would not have altered the plan,” Upper St. Clair said in its brief. “The plan to was to monitor the students and stop the students before any sexual activity occurred.”
The officers followed the students and believed that they had gone home for the day.
However, an officer working night duty later saw on a school surveillance camera that the boy and another girl were back on the premises.
Though the officer then did rounds to find them, he never did.
The girl’s attorneys contend that two girls were raped in the stairwell that afternoon, including their client.
“Ghilani’s ‘sting operation,’ which prevented von Waldow from placing Jane Doe on her bus and out of harm’s way so that she could be used as bait, resulted in her being violently raped. Ghilani and the school district acted in utter disregard of her welfare.”
If the allegations against the school district are true, I really can’t imagine a greater breach of student safety and trust. I don’t care how many security officers are following or supposed to be following the students in question — rape victims should never be used as “bait,” let alone as a means to catch students having consensual sex. That this was the plan doesn’t seem to be denied, but instead rather implicitly confirmed through statements by school representatives reproduced up above.
The logic behind the idea is terrifying. One is left presuming that Principal Ghilani saw Jane Doe’s report of being rape as not falling under the category of “real” rape, and thus related to the consensual sex he was trying to stamp out. It’s an incredibly revealing tactic, as it shows that Ghilani strongly prioritized busting students having consensual sexual contact (in an admittedly inappropriate location) over adequately and responsibly responding to claims of sexual violence. As is so common, consensual female sexuality is seen as a bigger threat to order than male sexual violence.
In its defense, the school district only confirms that this was their line of thinking.1 Rather than denying that any “sting” was planned at all — apparently, there’s too much evidence that it was real — they’ve just resorted to calling Jane Doe a lying whore:
But in court documents filed by the school district, there are allegations that relationships between the boy in question and several of the girls who claim to be victims were consensual. The district argues that the girls liked him, and were jealous of the others.
In one court filing, the district said that it could dispute whether the student who filed the lawsuit has been raped.
But following the incident, the girl’s attorneys contend in documents, the suspect sent the girl this text message:
“im soo sry i didn’t mean 2 make u cry. i’m cant believe i just raped u well bout time u read dis i mite b dead.”
School officials also claim that they knew nothing of any sexual assaults by the boy until the morning of Feb. 5, 2008 — the day after the alleged “sting.”
So not only did Jane Doe make up both rapes, but the sting operation came about because the principal thought that the student had reported consensual sex to her teacher? Yes, I see how that makes sense. Throw in something about how victims of sexual violence really wanted it and like to fight over their rapist, and no one will notice the illogical nature of the claim! Everyone eats that jealous, boy-obsessed teenage girl shit right up. Also, stuff about how girls and women who claim rape are really just dirty sluts in denial.
I’m honestly not even sure which facet of this case I find most appalling — the lesson that if you report being raped to your school, they’ll use you as a method to catch other students doing allegedly naughty things rather than protecting you; or the lesson that if you report being raped to your school, they’ll respond to their own culpability in the situation by telling the national media that you wanted it, anyway.
I guess that if there’s any “good news” in this case, it’s the fact that we don’t have to choose between condemning the two. The entire story is filled to the brim with victim-blaming, rape apologism, and enabling of sexual violence. And barring an enormous bombshell that the Upper St. Clair School District has in its back pocket, what they’ve admitted to alone shows that they’re responsible for repeatedly and persistently fostering an environment where sexual violence is encouraged, both by placing the situation on the back burner and refusing to listen to rape victims when they come forward.