On the evening of July 23rd, in “response to questions and comments about a recent online posting regarding a sexual assault allegation,” five days after the sexual assault allegations were posted, Dean of Students Viviana Palacio, High School Director Marc Alongi, Assistant Head of School Azizi Williams, Head of School Josh Brody, and President of the Board of Trustees Michael Barak, wrote a message to the Sequoyah High School community. With plans to launch a “third party inquiry” regarding the sexual assault allegation, the administration stated they “take these types of allegations seriously.” Sequoyah emphasized their commitment “to listening and making sure [Sequoyah community members] are heard, to investigating allegations, and to taking action where misconduct has occurred.”
Sequoyah students immediately took issue with the school’s message. Just hours after the email, the Instagram account @sequoyahstrengthening was posting responses from students.’The victim bravely said rape” one student wrote, taking issue with the phrase “sexual assault.” An alum stated that the “new email means nothing,” while another student stated “This [the email] is both insensitive and offensive.” Students questioned the values Sequoyah tries to impart on their students, with one comment saying, “Make an actionable promise… do right upon your word instead of making false statements.”
In the email, Sequoyah mentioned the recently created Instagram account that has brought to light experiences and issues students have with the high school. From the administration’s point of view, the concerns brought up on this account are exactly what the school’s foundational values try to combat.
The Sequoyah administration expressed the deep value they have for the “closeness of our community and the trust” students and staff have in one another. In response to the sexual assault allegations, Sequoyah restated their Community Norms and their inclusion and equity promise. If conduct is deviated from, they wrote, the Community Norms Committee, a committee “tasked with making recommendations about repair work and disciplinary consequences to the school,” will review the incident.
They stated that consent education is a core part of the curriculum through the school’s Human Development program, which begins in ninth grade. Administrators explained that the program “ultimately challenges you to reflect upon your own personal values as well as the values of our Sequoyah community.” They mentioned that there are also resources available for parents that coincide with the curriculum, including how to talk to students about these subjects. In response, one student wrote on @sequoyahstrengthening, “Rather than proposing and agreeing to change they just defended their current program which is clearly at this point not working […].”
Two anonymous students addressed the priority Human Development received, saying, “I probably had no more than 10 hours of Human Development in four years at the high school; it was always the last priority.” One student wrote that as a freshman “I do feel that we start to cover consent” and that the course was “pretty good,” but noted that the school’s trouble with time management meant they only had the class a third of the time they were supposed to.
In their message, administrators provided the National Sexual Assault Hotline as a resource for Sequoyah students as well as information about Anais Plasketes, Sequoyah’s social and emotional learning specialist, who is a licensed marriage and family therapist. The administration said she is “always available to engage” with the Sequoyah community. Next year, Plasketes will be available to meet, by “appointment,” in a “private, designated meeting room” on the high school campus.
They urged the community to “please remember that asking for help doesn’t require a process.” Teachers and staff are always “comfortable with concerns or questions you may have.” They encouraged the community to “speak up and speak out,” because they work to “establish trust so that you feel safe in doing so.” In addition to that encouragement, the message announced that administrators are “exploring the implementation of an anonymous communication protocol[s] through an external resource to provide [the Sequoyah community] with alternate means of raising issues of concern.”
Following the message sent by the administration, Brody sent a message responding to the concerns about racial and gender equity that the Instagram account @sequoyahstrengthening brought to light, as well as to the Class of 2019’s petition. Brody acknowledged Sequoyah’s mistakes, saying, “Clearly, we have not succeeded in ways we had hoped to.” Additionally he apologized to Black students and students of color who have endured pain at Sequoyah.
The message was well received, with one Sequoyah student on the account saying thank you directly to Josh. The latest email, according to that same anonymous Sequoyah student, was “much more to the point, specific, and vulnerable.” “Sequoyah won’t improve if they keep being defensive,” the student wrote.
In response to comments that have arisen over the past few days, Brody and other administrators were interviewed by reporters of The Barefoot Times. In response, Brody produced a statement apologizing for the pain the first email caused and clarified the administration’s intent. The administration, according to Brody, intended to communicate these allegations in a very serious manner. Adding information about their current programs confused the issue, and Brody said, “I can see how it came off as defensive.” He apologized for the “insensitivity” and acknowledged that information about the Human Development Program should have come at a later date.
Brody addressed the concerns about the Human Development program, saying, “we need to review the program, including the policies and procedures related to sexual abuse and harassment as identified in the petition from the class of 2019.” Brody also stated that Sequoyah will be reaching out to students and alumni about their experience with Human Development.
Acknowledging the anonymous comments from @sequoyahstrengthening, Brody wrote that addressing the Class of 2019’s petition is important.
Reviewing and changing the policies and procedures of our Human Development program, Brody stated, will be done with the help of an outside expert and will be facilitated by a committee of faculty, alumni, students, which will be led by Board Member Laura Gowen. Brody has already reached out to outside organizations that “might help conduct our Human Development review.”
Aaliyah Balangue, a senior at Sequoyah, believes that the administration “always says that they have things going on but [the students] never really see it.” She wishes that the administration would be more “transparent” and have more updates for students. “We deserve to see the change and hear about the change,” she stated.
When asked how she thinks the administration, faculty, and staff should respond to events like these, Balangue responded that “acknowledging mistakes in front of everyone is ideal.”
“It is easy to hide behind an email and then sit in front of everyone the next day and pretend it was never sent.” She ended by stating that “emails don’t really show genuine emotion- facial expression and body language does.”