Conard's Response to My Sexual Assault: Why We Need Change
By: Ally Bernstein-Naples
I began my senior year, excited for what was to come. I was excited to see my friends, to meet my new teachers, and to prepare to enter “the real world” as graduation neared. My plans never came to fruition. September of my senior year at Conard, I was raped. While it didn’t happen at Conard, the effects were pervasive throughout my life. As cliche as it sounds, it felt like the world came crashing down around me. I never slept. When I tried, nightmares intervened. My head always hurt, and I was unable to eat. My attendance plummeted. When I went to school, my days were characterized by stifled panic attacks, crying spells in my car, and vomiting in the bathroom. I have always considered myself strong, and part of being strong is knowing when to ask for help. So I did. I was terrified, but I decided to disclose what had happened to a faculty member, knowing they are mandated reporters. I told three faculty members what had happened before, on my fourth try, it was finally reported. Here’s where I say, my attention is not to shame anyone. It is not to get anyone in trouble. I will give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. So maybe these faculty members weren't aware of their reporting duties. Maybe they didn’t want to make things worse. The fact of the matter is, the school needs to train its faculty to report the sexual assault of minors. It is the law, and it is in place to protect students. When it was finally reported, I expected things to get better. I thought that I would receive the support I needed. I was wrong.
As I mentioned, when a faculty member reported that I had been raped, I felt an immense sense of relief. The stress of my failing grades was crippling as I struggled through the college application process. I feared I would not be able to graduate. While I was attending therapy, and meeting regularly with multiple doctors including psychiatrists, my symptoms were not getting better. I was diagnosed with PTSD and a resulting panic disorder, anxiety disorder, eating disorder, and depression. I was struggling, and as I know now healing takes time. But the world doesn’t stop to give you the chance to heal, and neither does school. With my future in mind, I reached out for help getting my academic career back on track. After the report, I was referred to one of the school’s social workers. I was told they would help me to communicate with my teachers and craft a plan for makeup work, as well as to implement strategies to assuage my PTSD symptoms experienced at school. I told the social worker that I wanted to tell my teachers what had happened. I expected that they would need some context in order to grant me the leeway I needed to get back on track. The social worker told me that we could not do that. They told me that I would “make my teachers uncomfortable” and that “it is not their job to deal with this.” They questioned whether or not my lack of attendance and falling grades was a result of PTSD, or of senioritis. In all honesty, this question broke me. I have always been a good student. From my freshman year through my junior year I maintained a 4.5 cumulative GPA. And yet, my symptoms were being questioned. Was I really struggling or was I just lazy? Rather than with support and a plan, I came away from that meeting with more self doubt than ever.
I was then referred back to the guidance department where I was simply told that I needed to come to school and that “perhaps you’re taking too many AP classes”. It felt as though nobody at Conard believed in me anymore. Not even myself. Without knowing why I was missing so much school, when I tried to communicate with my teachers I was met with frustration and exhaustion. Here’s where again, I want to interject. I do not blame any of my teachers, at all. They worked with what they were given, and without being able to convey to them what had happened, they weren’t given much. To the teachers that met me with unrelenting kindness and patience, thank you. To the teachers that met me with anger and frustration, I understand.
As I proceeded, trying to heal, and trying to preserve my future, I confided in a trusted former teacher. I told him that with my dropped classes and less than ideal grades, I was worried I wouldn’t get accepted into college. He told me that colleges always take into consideration letters of extenuating circumstances sent by the guidance department. I asked him what that was. He was shocked that it was not already planned to send one of these letters. So I requested that one be sent. The guidance department and administration initially refused, saying that I could tell my story in college interviews. They wanted me to tell a stranger that I had been raped, during an interview. My parents threatened to pursue further action against the school, and they finally agreed to write the letter. Still after I was met with disdain. I was repeatedly asked invasive questions about my therapy and my trauma. I was told that I was ruining my future. They used scare tactics saying I wouldn’t graduate. You may be wondering at this point, how I know they were scare tactics. Entering my senior year I only needed one credit to graduate, an English credit. I was passing my English class. When I asked what support I could retain with makeup work and accommodations, I was told to “accept the bad grades.”
So where am I now? In all honesty I am still struggling, and I am still healing. But I’ve been accepted into college, and I am feeling more certain about my future. So what’s the point of this article? A few weeks ago, following a panel on Mental Health during Black History Month, I met with Principal Hines. The former school psychologist moderating the presentation had left us with the final words, “the great thing about Conard is that if you’re struggling, and you walk into the guidance wing, and you knock on any door, you will find amazing support”. This was not my experience. Not even close. I was fighting back tears and asked to leave the room. I went to the office to speak to Principal Hines, and I broke down, telling him everything I had experienced this year. I told him that I knocked on door, after door, after door, begging somebody to help me. And nobody did. Principal Hines was horrified. He told me, that my legacy at this school would be ensuring that nobody else ever experienced such treatment while recovering from sexual assault. I am writing this article to ensure this is true.
I am willing to give everyone I asked for help during this period the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were all well meaning and trying to help. The bottom line is that there was no framework, no protocol, no chain of command, to help me. The people involved were at least extremely ill trained in dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault in education. I can say with confidence that the school only added to my struggle, rather than supporting me through it. This should not be the case. Faculty should know that they are mandated reporters. It shouldn’t matter if it makes teachers uncomfortable that I was raped. I should have been met with more than “you need to come to school” and “just take the bad grades.” I shouldn’t have been asked if my PTSD was senioritis. Conard needs to do better for survivors of sexual assault. Conard needs to do better for its students who are struggling. Because honestly, my situation poses a greater question about who the school works for. When I was thriving with a 4.5 GPA I was met with pride and support from the school. The system worked for me, and I believed us to be an excellent educational community. But I know that I am not the only Conard student that has faced plummeting attendance and failing grades. And when I was in this position, I was met with disdain, ridicule, and shame, rather than support. To everyone who has taken the time to read my story, thank you. I want to leave you with this question. Does Conard’s educational structure place value on students based on their grades and success, rather than based on their struggles, their work ethic, their humanity?