The following story discusses sexual violence on Merced Union High School District campuses, including sexual harassment and assault. There are some anecdotes that include descriptions of sexual violence, which may be traumatic or upsetting.
The library of Golden Valley High School was packed on May 9, filled with students, teachers, classified and certified staff, and advocates demanding change from the Merced Union High School District (MUHSD) Board of Trustees and Superintendents. During the public comment period of the meeting, the issue of sexual violence, namely harassment and assault, was addressed.
Annie Delgado, a social studies and women’s studies teacher at MUHSD schools, spoke at the podium about a time in Jan. 2018 when an independent investigator concluded that a male colleague of Delgado’s engaged in inappropriate behavior toward her, including inappropriate touching of her body. At the May meeting, Delgado’s focused not on the investigation itself, but rather, on her experience with Ralph Calderon, Deputy Superintendent, Human Resources & District Operations of MUHSD.
“I thought seeking clarification of proactive steps would be understandable and inoffensive,” Delgado said at the podium. “But as I learned that day, I was wrong. While initially he denied my request to listen to my statement because he was ‘not comfortable’ with it, when he did listen, the Deputy Superintendent mocked and belittled the points that I made and raised his voice at me. When I advised that I would simply read the statement to the board, he responded by waving his hand in a dismissive manner and said ‘Whatever.’”
Delgado was not the only one who experienced a form of sexual violence on a MUHSD campus. Many young women used the public comment period to read anonymous stories of instances of sexual violence, many remaining anonymous due to fear of retaliation, including the possibility of their reputations being destroyed and their graduation privileges being revoked.
“I am a female senior at Golden Valley High School,” an anonymous statement was read to the board. “I have been sexually assaulted by another student that comes here. He is still in the school and hasn’t received any time out of school or even in jail. When I was sexually assaulted, I had to go to school therapist in room 205 for help. The day it happened, I immediately went to room 205 and talked to the school therapist. She reported it and the only thing that happened to help me were two Merced County Sheriffs that came and questioned him. The school board didn’t take any responsibility to help me whatsoever. To this day, the male student is still in school. Not questioned by school administration. Every time I see this student, it reminds me of the day he had sexually assaulted me. I feel very uncomfortable with the fact that he still walks around school campus and I wonder why he still hasn’t been locked up or even questioned.”
Allies who attend the University of California (UC), Merced, relayed stories from young women they know who attend MUHSD schools. One UC Merced ally said, “I am also a UC student here in solidarity with your students who fear for their lives, not knowing who to go to when things like these happen, affecting them. There are very serious repercussions that happen, you know, suicidal thoughts. The fact that a student is scared that she won’t be able to graduate for sharing her story is not okay.”
Delgado herself began her public comment period statement with, “My daughter didn’t want me to speak tonight because she’s afraid I’m going to lose my job when I’m done speaking.”
Richard Lopez, a member the MUHSD board and a candidate for the Merced County Office of Education Superintendent, said that students will “absolutely not” have their graduation privileges revoked for speaking up.
“And we always welcome students and staff to address their concern,” Lopez said in a phone call following the meeting. “Obviously, they’ve got the public comment period to address those. Obviously, we know that there’s work for us to be done when they don’t feel comfortable taking it to their immediate supervisors or administration.”
MUHSD board president Dave Honey issued an emailed statement via Leslie Rohrback, an Executive Assistant in the Superintendent’s Office, to We’Ced Youth Media: “The Merced Union High School District Board of Trustees and administration recognize the bravery displayed by the students and staff members who shared their stories at Wednesday’s board meeting. The district will be further investigating the claims brought forth and taking action to help ensure the safety and emotional well-being of all our students and staff.”
Still, Delgado, advocates, and young women students of MUHSD are all calling for systemic and institutional change within the district.
Caroline Heldman, an associate professor at Occidental College and campus sexual assault advocate, attended the meeting on May 9 after hearing about the situation through a network of feminist advocates. She noted at the meeting that MUHSD is not in compliance with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendment of 1972. In a later phone interview, Heldman explained that Title VII pertains to staff and faculty, and that not handling cases of sexual harassment properly, such as in Delgado’s case, would fall under that. Title IX pertains to students, Heldman explained, and the noncompliance comes from administrators not properly handling reports of sexual violence from students.
“I’m a bit concerned that they won’t institute new policies, even though they easily could, given a 40-day time period,” Heldman said. “Because they’ve dragged their feet for so long, victims of sexual harassment and survivors of sexual violence have been reporting these experiences to the school district for years. The stories and the people I’ve spoken with just in the last couple of weeks indicate to me that they know that this is a problem. So, just based upon the sheer number of cases that they have had to process, and … I am concerned at the way in which they have been treating students and faculty to date.”
Heldman, however, said she hopes that MUHSD will come to realize that sexual violence should not be tolerated. She also added, “I hope that they realize that they’re either going to voluntarily get in compliance with federal law or they will get into compliance with federal law through lawsuits and federal complaints and other actions. The question is really are they going to choose their students’ safety voluntarily or is it going to be something that requires a lot of pushing on the part of people who care about the safety of students and faculty?”
Delgado noted that the long-term goal is systemic change, which she acknowledges won’t happen overnight
“This isn’t just about protecting staff members, this is about protecting students as well,” Delgado said in a phone interview. “We are in education to serve our students and if we have staff who don’t feel safe–and you heard that night we have students who don’t feel safe–then we’re not fulfilling our purpose and our profession.”
At the meeting, a young woman spoke of a list of demands that fellow MUHSD students submitted to the board. For the safety of students and staff throughout MUHSD, they asked the administration to create a clear and precise protocol for students to report any sexual harassment or assault, along with a designated safe space and a designated person to report harassment to on every campus.
“Currently, we have no protocol in place,” the young woman said. “We’re often bounced around from classroom to teacher to the campus resource officer to administration to the school psychologist. This process makes an already difficult situation even harder. The lack of protocol has made some people feel like giving up out of frustration and lack of support.”
The young woman also listed that they would like to have a student representative on the MUHSD board who would look out for the best interest of the students and advocate for them. She noted that students have reported sexual harassment or assault and have been dismissed or victim blamed.
Delgado’s demands for systemic change includes trauma-informed interviews of victims and survivors of sexual violence. She explained in a later phone interview that people need to be mindful of the traumatic experience and that every time a victim and survivor are made to go through retelling their story, they are re-traumatized in the process. “Linear questioning does not work when you speak to a victim,” she noted.
Delgado said there were times in her interactions with the district when she felt the terms “victim” and “perpetrator” were confused and incorrectly applied. The current protocol of sexual harassment training once every two years for two hours is not enough to be trained in how to recognize it, how to question the victim, and how to support the victim.
“Please remember who the victim is and who the perpetrator is,” Delgado said at the meeting. “Please do not ever subject a victim to an interview by an investigator and then send them back to work and expect neither their students, their staff that they’ve worked with to wonder why they appear distraught.”
Delgado also called for the MUHSD human resources department to emphasize the human component. She mentioned at the meeting how Deputy Superintendent Calderon had belittled her points and concerns. She called for the individual holding the office of human resources to be of the highest integrity and above reproach, “for if they are to hold someone accountable, they cannot have engaged in conduct such as bullying or harassment that could make them the subject of numerous grievances and complaints by their previous subordinates.”
“An effective and compliant human resources office needs to be run by someone with a degree in human resources management or a master’s in business administration,” Delgado said at the meeting. “The topics and issues require not only a specialized degree, but also an ability to execute the duties in an unbiased manner with respect and dignity for those reporting instances of sexual harassment, sexual battery, hostile work environment and discrimination. In other words, one must have the ability to be sensitive and compassionate and know that it is not acceptable to engage in ridicule and condescension.”
Following the May 9 meeting, a special meeting took place on May 17 at the MUHSD district office to address the issue of sexual violence in the district’s schools. According to the meeting agenda, a closed session also took place during that meeting to address Government Code section 54956.9(d)(2), which is defined by the code’s text as, “A point has been reached where, in the opinion of the legislative body of the local agency on the advice of its legal counsel, based on existing facts and circumstances, there is a significant exposure to litigation against the local agency,” and also met with legal counsel regarding “Significant Exposure to Litigation — Three cases.”
The next MUHSD board meeting will be held on Jun. 13 at the MUHSD district office in Atwater, Calif., where many staff, students, and advocates plan to attend to follow up with the board on policy changes and what has not changed since the May 9 meeting. Issues of sexual violence, including harassment and assault, will be on the agenda.