It started in middle school. When male administrators would flag girls for dress-code violations for wearing “revealing” clothes. When older boys would intimidate a Grade 6 girl and make lewd comments about her body.
It continued into high school. With being groped in the lineup at the cafeteria. With what one young woman described as “your normal boob grab or ass grab” in the hallway, in the stairwell, at lockers.
It was the male so-called “friends” who pressured them into sending nude photos. The ex-boyfriends of their own friends who hit on them at parties, who cornered them and assaulted them. It was older boys demanding sexual behaviours they weren’t ready or willing to give.
It was being served drugged drinks at parties. It was being held down against their will. It was rape.
Today it is rage. And tears. And hugs. And one young survivor after another, standing up and sharing their stories, their strength and their solidarity with the crowd of a few hundred students assembled on the Mercer Stadium lawn.
It is the young woman who stands at the microphone and says, in a clear and unwavering voice: “My life has gone downhill because of one guy’s f***ing decision to take my rights away and violate me.”
It is Friday, May 13, 2022, and this is New Westminster Secondary School.
NWSS students take anti-harassment message to the streets
“Hey hey, ho ho, the patriarchy has got to go!”
“Say it once, say it again, no excuse for violent men.”
New Westminster Secondary School students took their message about gender-based violence and harassment to the streets on Friday – loudly and fiercely.
Students from the school’s SEAS (Safety, Education, Advocacy and Support) group organized the walkout and rally to draw attention to what they say is a disturbing “rape culture” at the high school.
Students gathered out front of the high school and marched down the street en masse, more than 200 students strong, waving signs as their chants carried on the clear afternoon air.
The line of protesters streamed down to the parking lot outside the School District 40 offices on Ontario Street. There, district superintendent Karim Hachlaf and school board members — including Gurveen Dhaliwal, Dee Beattie, Danielle Connelly and Maya Russell — watched and listened to student speeches and testimonies from students about their personal experiences.
Then the students marched back up to Mercer Stadium, where they assembled on the lawn and listened as, one by one, their peers approached the megaphone to tell their own stories.
‘Healing moments’: Rally organizers work to empower survivors
Grace Hodges, a Grade 12 student and one of the rally organizers, said the students wanted to use the occasion to draw attention to the issues they’ve been talking about since they started a petition about gender-based harassment at the high school more than a year ago.
They want to put pressure on school administration, district staff and the Ministry of Education to ensure better education about, and action on, sexual health and sexual assault in schools.
Most of all, Hodges said, they wanted the rally to give voice to survivors.
“We want to empower the victims of sexual assault who are at our school, to have an avenue they can advocate for themselves through,” she said.
“I’ve been involved in activism for a while, and some of the most healing moments have been at protests, when I feel my community around me. And I think if we can give that to the victims at our school, we can give that to the girls who have experienced harassment at our school, who have experienced degradation every day, then that’s a big win for SEAS, I think, and that’s what we want to channel moving forward.”
Students propose restorative justice program
One of the things they’d specifically like to see, she said, is the creation of a restorative justice program that would be available as an avenue for victims of sexual assault to find justice, and for perpetrators to come to a deeper understanding of the harm they have caused.
Running such a program through the NWSS Wellness Centre would be a tangible way to start transforming the culture of the school, she said.
She’s quick to note that the problems faced by the girls at New Westminster’s only high school aren’t unique to the school.
“It’s a societal thing. The systems that are in power — our legal system, our education system — they are complicit in enabling this. They are complicit in teaching young boys and men that this is OK and telling them that this is a valid option. Sure, we might not be able to change our entire structure of society, but we can make a start,” she said.
“I just think it takes one school saying ‘This is enough, and we need to do something better.’ Why not do something better? Because the other option is unthinkable. The other option, girls come to school feeling unsafe, is not an option. So we have to change.”
'We support them, 100%": Chair says board is committed to working for change
School board chair Gurveen Dhaliwal heard the students’ message loud and clear.
“It's troubling, it’s really troubling,” she said. “As a woman, these experiences — they resonate. And not just that, but it reminds us of the importance of the work that's required of us. We recognize that it's not just isolated to our schools or our cities. It's a part of a larger societal, systemic change that's required, and we're committed to that work."
Dhaliwal said the board will continue to build on the work it’s already been doing in schools over the past year.
“We’ve looked at opportunities to better support sexual education in our schools,” she said, noting that means looking at both policies and procedures and at “on-the-ground” educational opportunities to support students and build their sense of safety.
Dhaliwal said the district is open to SEAS’ idea of a restorative justice program.
“I think restorative justice is absolutely one option,” she said. “Our goal as a district is really to support and empower all students with whatever choices that they want to make that are right for their individual situations.”
Dhaliwal said the rally and the issues it raised are not just about what’s happening in schools.
“It's recognizing that society as a whole, we're dealing with this systemic change that is required. Students are bringing forward some of the many things that for me, as a woman, I absolutely understand and believe to be true. They exist in not just our schools but again, in our society.”
Asked if she had a message for students, Dhaliwal didn’t hesitate.
“That we support them, 100%,” she said. “It’s an incredibly complex issue. It's going to take a lot of work, and our district is committed to working alongside students and stakeholders to not just tackle immediate issues, but also to look at the cultural shift that’s required in our schools, and to build out a better society for them and generations to come.”
'We're trying to build a better society'
For many students, the day ended in hugs and in tears that promised, for some, the beginning of healing.
Which, for Hodges, was what it was meant to be.
She stressed the whole afternoon wasn’t about students just trying stir up controversy.
“I think, ultimately, we're not trying to tear anyone down and make people feel like we're just here to like cause chaos. We're trying to build a better society. We're trying to build a solution, and sometimes that's messy.
“But if the act of instituting patriarchy, of instituting sexism, was violent, was messy — sometimes undoing that is going to be messy too. But we have to embrace it and understand we're working towards a more positive world.
“And I’m committed to do that. SEAS is committed to do that. Now we want to invite our community to also work alongside us to build that.”