It’s supposed to be a safe place where students feel comfortable learning.
Instead, students from Western Canada High School say they don’t feel secure and that concerns surrounding prevalent rape culture and sexual misconduct allegations are not being addressed.
That’s why upwards of 300 students from one of the city’s biggest high schools walked out of class Tuesday morning holding signs such as “No Means No” and “Make Western Safe Again”.
The half-hour-long peaceful protest was organized by Grade 12 students Eliza Kalinowski, 17, Hayley Bryant, 17, Livia Ion, 17, and Emma Clark, 17. They said the strong response from their peers was heartwarming to see.
“I don’t think anyone, to my knowledge, received any pushback. If they wanted to attend the protest, I think everyone was allowed to sort of come outside and participate, which was nice,” Kalinowski says.
The students say they are rallying in support of sexual assault survivors while also sending a message to the school that these types of allegations need to be handled better within the school.
The issues that prompted the coordinated walkout
“It was a combination of things,” Kalinowski says.
“I think a lot of people who had gone forward to the office were feeling very tired, because they had left their meetings with administrators and staff feeling very alone, isolated, and like their story didn’t matter.”
Kalinowski says students have been sharing their stories and decided it was “time for a change.”
“Students will come forward with their story, and then administration will make these promises like, “Okay, well, we can’t suspend them, but we won’t put you in a class with this person,’” she explains.
“And then the very next semester, they’re putting you in the class with this person. It’s hard to go to class with someone when you don’t feel like you’re safe. And when you feel like you’re constantly being watched by someone who has hurt you in the past.”
Kalinowski says all of the incidents they are protesting don’t rise to the level of assault, but there is an issue at the school.
“It’s also words we hear in the hallways, just kind of people’s attitudes, and even like jokes surrounding rape culture, it’s all adding on to this issue. So, I think that’s what’s mostly happening day to day in the hallway,” she says.
“And we are very ignored. So this sort of was a breaking point.”
Tackling the “rape culture” that is prevalent in the hallways
While the students can’t comment on specific incidents, they say the incidents that prompted this walkout were not related to teachers “to the best of their knowledge,” but are more of a “rape culture” problem among students.
“It’s clear that rape culture and issues with sexual misconduct are a prevalent issue within our school community,” Clark says.
“We can’t necessarily talk about specific issues, but it’s clear that with this response from the students is that this is an issue that is very prevalent within our community, and the students are aware of.”
In a statement to Calgary Citizen, the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) said they are “aware of the allegations.”
“We can’t speak to specific details, however, ensuring that school environments are safe for all students is critically important to the CBE,” communications advisor Megan Geyser said.
“The CBE has a process for working with families and students to address concerns and reports of this nature. We take these matters seriously and where required, we also support students and families to work with (Calgary police).”
Moving forward together
Bryant says the students want to work with administration to talk about consent and sexual education, something they believe needs to start at the top with the UCP government, all the way down to the school.
“It’s really important to talk about consent and have consent education because students don’t know how to be better if they’re not given the resources,” Bryant says.
“I think it’s really important that we start having an open conversation about consent that’s being delivered to students to prevent this from happening because currently, consent is not mentioned in the sex education curriculum in Alberta.”
Ion believes the message was received by the school and hopes change is on the horizon.
“Even among those that weren’t able to come to the peaceful protest, I think it inspired a conversation within the school. And that’s the biggest thing that we want out of this, to get that conversation going so that we can actually have that tangible change,” she says.
“We understand that this is a community-based issue and that it’s going to take collaboration from both the students and administration to solve this problem. This is about school safety, and no one should be at school, fearing that they’re going to get assaulted.”
A councillor’s perspective
Ward 11 Coun. Kourtney Penner attended the rally in support of the students — she has a teenager who attends the inner-city school.
“I had intentions to talk to my teen at home about it later (after seeing it on Twitter), but they brought it up to us,” Penner explains, adding she offered her support in attending.
She commends the students for a well-planned and executed rally.
“They knew what their intention was, it was peaceful. It’s their moment, their spotlight. My role was just to be an adult in the background showing support,” Penner says, adding it’s important for students to feel safe at school.
“We have a trust relationship with our educators and with our teachers. And feeling like they lost that trust is critical. We need to be mindful of how we approach these situations as adults and … ensure our youth feel heard.”
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