The growing need for improved communication regarding sexual misconduct protocols in MCPS
TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains non-graphic descriptions of and information about sexual abuse and trauma. Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
This past summer, hundreds of Montgomery County students took to social media to share and discuss allegations of sexual assault and harassment. This movement illuminated existing gaps in communication, flaws within county and school protocols, and most importantly, the lack of clarity regarding student safety plans. Protecting MCPS students from assault and abuse is immensely complex, but increased transparency in how the county communicates and connects with the student body is a necessity.
Though MCPS has standardized protocols for processing allegations, school and county agencies must improve student outreach programs to close critical gaps in communications to best help students and administrators understand and follow these protocols. Ensuring better accessibility to victim resources through the use of social media and web content is imperative.
One writer on the SurvivoratBlair Instagram account, where Blair students anonymously discuss their experiences with sexual misconduct, explained that they were left to process their assault, which happened on school grounds, without support from the school. Other than sharing on social media, they “never talked about [their experience] with anyone before.”
Another anonymous writer on the account noted their perspective as a teacher in MCPS. “The problem is that in MCPS there are no consequences for anything,” they wrote. Accounts throughout the SurvivorAtBlair account echo a clear lack of transparency from the county: Far too many victims of sexual assault and harassment feel unsupported and unable to come forward with their stories.
The MCPS process for filing an allegation of sexual assault or harassment is designed to comply with federal Title IX standards, which apply to all federally-funded institutions—like our school system. Currently, the county Board of Education is faced with the formidable task of adapting their Title IX policy to match federal changes made in May; the new rules include requiring a higher standard of evidence from victims. Patricia O’Neill, who chairs the BOE’s Policy Management Committee, says that everyone on the Board takes this task “incredibly seriously.”
Despite the best of intentions, the existing ambiguity surrounding the MCPS process for addressing cases of sexual assault or harassment will only be exacerbated by these changes to the county Title IX policy. Continuing to support student victims while also complying with the changed federal policy will become increasingly challenging, which makes it more imperative that the county communicates clearly with the student body to ensure that the MCPS population at large is able to navigate these changes and their implications.
While there is much work to be done in improving and maximizing the MCPS procedures for processing sexual assault, transparency is key to ensure that the student body is fully aware of their options and can access the resources that do exist. Accounts from students, like those presented on the SurvivorAtBlair Instagram account, illustrate opportunities to improve the transparency and efficacy of options for victim support—because every student with a sexual assault story should have been made aware of every option in going forward with their case.
Currently, students seeking information about MCPS protocols and support are encouraged to attend the sessions held by the Student Welfare and Compliance program and the MCPS Board of Education. Despite these measures, many members of the MCPS student body remain uninformed about the MCPS sexual assault and harassment procedures.
The sheer scale of the MCPS system makes visibility and consistent messaging an elusive goal, according to Montgomery County Title IX Coordinator Greg Edmundson. “When you have 208 schools and 165,000 students, the ability to be as consistent in practice as possible is really difficult,” Edmundson said. When countywide student outreach programs lack standardization, it is increasingly difficult to make them accessible to such a large and varied student body.
Specifically at Blair, resource counselor Makeyda Soriano explained that the counseling department is doing its best to use social media to connect with the student body. “[We try to] stay as visible as we can; we do our best to respond to messages on our social media if students want to message us directly,'' Soriano said.
Intentions are good and efforts are being made, yet many students are still underserved as critical information remains under the radar. The Blair Counseling Department’s Instagram account, for example, is only followed by 313 users. Even if we assume that every follower is a Blair student, this accounts for less than 10 percent of all roughly 3,200 Blazers.
Students who have not had encounters with sexual assault or harassment usually aren’t actively seeking out resources regarding the reporting process. Then, when they need the information, it’s too late. The truth is, nobody expects that something like sexual harassment, assault, or abuse to happen to them—until it does. But the social media movement over the summer demonstrated that sexual misconduct is exceedingly common, and survivors often don’t know what resources are available or where to seek support.
Refining student outreach programs to include more accessible web content and better use of social media channels will ensure that all students have access to the information necessary to navigate the process of coming forward with an allegation, even if they don’t need it yet. Maximizing the use of social media to create a clearer understanding of the process of reporting sexual assault could help close a critical communication gap.
Given the existing disparities in service to students and the looming federal policy changes, MCPS—both school-level administrators and central policymakers—must take this opportunity to increase transparency. They must evolve in a way that serves students facing trauma from assault, abuse, or harassment in order to make our schools safer for all.