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Students push for broader sexual assault reforms in CMS, say Title IX hires are 'important first step'

Nick de la Canal
Rachel Potier, a junior at Ardrey Kell High School, was among a group of current and former CMS students protesting on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, against the school district's handling of sexual assault cases.

Current and former Charlotte-Mecklenburg School students and their supporters banded together in Park Road Park on Saturday with a message for the school district: enact deeper, broader reforms protecting students from sexual assault, or risk seeing more students harmed on CMS campuses.

The protest came a day after CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston announced that he would hire additional Title IX investigators to review student reports of sexual assaults, lifting that responsibility away from school principals.

The announcement was met with tepid support from protesters, who questioned why principals had been in charge in the first place, and said many questions remained about the superintendent's announcement, such as how many investigators would be hired, and when the new investigators would start work.

"It's an important first step," said former Myers Park High School student Serena Evans, "but it won't really be a first step until something actually happens, not just words."

Evans and others who organized Saturday's protest said the school district needed to take much broader steps to prevent on-campus assaults and enact policies that support students who summon the courage to report assaults that have happened.

Nick de la Canal
Nikki Wombwell speaks at a protest in Park Road Road on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, surrounded by (from left to right) Lily McMahan, Aiden Finnell and Serena Evans.

Among their requests: make sure students are fully educated about their Title IX rights, make sure teachers and administrators are fully aware of their Title IX responsibilities, ban administrators from retaliating against students who report sexual assaults or peacefully protest on campus, and swiftly discipline administrators or teachers who do.

In past statements, the school district has said it takes student reports of sexual assault seriously and is dedicated to making sure students and staff are educated on Title IX, which is a federal law that requires schools to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual violence and requires schools to investigate all student complaints of sexual assault or harassment.

However, the school district has come under intense scrutiny for its handling of sexual assault cases this year after several incidents that drew local and some national media attention.

Most recently, The Charlotte Observer, WBTV, and other media outlets reported on the story of a female student at Hawthorne Academy who said she had been sexually assaulted on the second day of school by a fellow student inside a school bathroom.

Police filed criminal charges against the accused student, but an investigation by the school determined there had been no assault, and the Observer and others reported that the female student was given a one-day suspension for "falsification of information," told to take a class titled "Sexual Harassment is Preventable," and asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement about her punishment.

Following media reports of the student's discipline, the school district suspended Hawthorne's principal and an assistant principal.

Nick de la Canal
A woman holds a sign at a protest on Nov. 21, 2021 in Park Road Park.

Another case in October involved a student-athlete at Olympic High School who was allowed to play football with a court-ordered ankle monitor after being criminally charged with a felony sex offense. Students walked out of class in protest, and the school suspended members of the Olympic High women's volleyball team for participating in the walkout.

Those cases and others were mentioned at Saturday's protest. Another prominent speaker who shared her story of being sexually assaulted while at CMS was Nikki Wombwell. She along with Evans and others helped organize the protest.

Both Wombwell and Evans have publicly shared their stories of being sexually assaulted during their time at Myers Park High School — Wombwell in 2014 and Evans in 2016. Both have alleged that the principal at the time, Mark Bosco, discouraged them from pursuing their cases, and even suggested they could be suspended.

Wombwell sued CMS in 2019 over her case and the school district settled with her in April 2021 without admitting any wrongdoing. An attorney for Bosco later said an internal CMS investigation found there was no basis to claims that he mishandled sexual assault reports, however, the school district later reassigned him to a new role in the CMS central office.

Since coming forward with their stories earlier this year, Evans and Wombell said they've been joined by a growing number of young women who've shared their own stories of sexual assault in CMS or at other schools, or who have heard their stories and sought to join them at past protests or other events.

Nick de la Canal
Andrew Boland, left, and Angel Myles hold signs during a march through Park Road Park on Nov. 21, 2021.

The school district may yet announce new policies or other recommendations from a student-led task force on sexual assault formed by the superintendent earlier this year. The school district has kept many details about the task force private, including the names of students involved. Its meetings have also been closed to the public.

The students involved in the task force finalized their recommendations for the school district at their final meeting last week. Adult facilitators are now consolidating those recommendations into a formal report that will be submitted to the superintendent on Wednesday, Nov. 24.

It's unclear when Winston will finish reviewing the document and announce new policies or other changes, but Wombwell and others said at Saturday's protest that the time for substantive change had arrived long ago.

"Now is not the time to sit back behind task forces and committees," Wombwell said to the crowd around her, "Now is not the time to play politics and deliberate endlessly, now is the time for decisive action. The longer you delay, the more cases like ours will take place."

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Corrected: November 23, 2021 at 3:14 PM EST
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that a CMS task force had submitted recommendations to the superintendent. The recommendations have been submitted to adult facilitators, who are compiling them into a report for the superintendent.
Nick de la Canal is a reporter for WFAE covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal