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Ferndale students lead healthy relationships, consent assembly after ex-coach’s arrest

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Almost two weeks after a former part-time coach was arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting three underage girls, the Ferndale School District changed a planned student-run assembly on mental health to a presentation on healthy relationships and consent.

Around 1,100 students at Ferndale High School attended one of two 30-minute assemblies held Tuesday morning where a panel of three sophomores asked representatives from the Ferndale Police Department, Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services and Ferndale Superintendent Linda Quinn questions surrounding sexual assault and consent.

All students were expected to attend, except seniors who graduated last week.

The assemblies were planned by students as part of a project in one of their leadership classes and were originally scheduled to be discussions about mental health. Quinn said she wanted to hold an assembly about sexual assault and consent. Quinn said they decided they didn’t want to tackle both topics at the same time, for fear neither presentation would be as strong and instead decided consent was the most pressing issue.

Quinn said changing the topic had to do with “conversations heating up” over the past several weeks surrounding the news of the arrests of a former part-time Ferndale assistant wrestling coach and a Meridian High School student, who were each arrested for alleged sexual assaults.

“The motivation for this assembly came from the conversations going on in classrooms and on social media, and some communications with me by students and parents and me and others about what kids might not know and what needs to be clarified for students,” Quinn said.

Quinn said while an assembly isn’t the usual setting for the district to discuss sensitive topics with its students, “we thought having everyone together in the same room was the right place to start.”

Quinn said she felt the students were attentive, and that for some, the assembly is the beginning of the conversation. She said the heightened conversations in the area have made the district re-double their efforts to talk about healthy relationships. Each year, district officials pick a topic for staff to focus on. This past year was suicide prevention, and next year will be on healthy relationships, Quinn said.

“Ferndale has been committed to working on this issue for a long time. I just feel compelled to make sure they know what the laws are, but beyond the laws, have a sense of what is moral and right and what they can count on as far as their own physical safety,” Quinn said.

Quinn said creating and teaching a culture of consent and permission can start as early as kindergarten with teaching kids to respect one another’s boundaries, such as respecting a student’s wish to not be hugged or to not have something taken away from them without permission.

Quinn said students were given resources for help-lines for DVSAS and Lummi Victims of Crime. Counselors are also available for students to speak with, and the district office is staffed full-time throughout the summer if students need it.

“I want our students to know that we are here to help, that’s it not OK for any student to feel unsafe or sexually pressured. I want all of our students to also know what it means to be on the perpetrator side of that, so they don’t think it’s OK,” Quinn said. “I know they see all kinds of things in the media, they’re exposed to lots, and we owe it to them to help them navigate pretty complex issues when they’re being bombarded from all sides with conflicting messages.

“I want them to know that assault or abuse of any kind is not OK and we aren’t going to look the other way,” Quinn added.

The assemblies

The second 30-minute assembly began with Ferndale High School Principal Jeremy Vincent saying that he understood one assembly is not enough to fix the issues surrounding consent and sexual assault, but it’s the start of a conversation.

Vincent said sexual assault and consent are sensitive issues that can sometimes thrive in silence because they’re difficult to speak about. Vincent said the goal of the assembly was to demonstrate to the students that school officials won’t stay silent when it comes to abuse, as well as to identify and educate them about complex issues and healthy relationships.

Vincent also said school officials felt a sense of urgency in sharing the information with the students before they went on summer break.

Three students, Alex Brulotte, Grace Benson and Tyrel Duckworth each went on stage and asked representatives from Ferndale police, DVSAS and Quinn questions related to healthy relationships, consent and sexual assault.

Brulotte asked Ferndale Police Detective Justin Pike to define sexual assault, whether it was OK for a high school student to be in a sexual relationship with an adult, and whether it was acceptable to send naked pictures or store them in a secret folder.

Pike walked the students through the legal definitions of sexual assault, rape and consent, and explained that certain sex crimes are charged based upon the age gap between people. He then cautioned the students about getting into relationships with those much older or younger than they are. Anyone 16 and older can be in a consenting sexual relationship with an adult aged 18 or older, but it’s against the law for anyone in a supervisory position to be in a sexual relationship with someone who is a subordinate and is 16, Pike said.

Pike told the students that pictures can always be found on the internet, even if deleted, and that both the sender and receiver could face legal consequences, as photos of minors could be considered child pornography. Pike said it’s an individual choice to send a picture like that, but “you lose that right to privacy, you lose that innocence and you have no control over that picture and the picture never goes away.”

He also told the students it was up to them to work to change the culture of sexual assault, and that survivors shouldn’t feel guilty and that no one should be a victim of sexual assault. He urged students to say something to someone they trust if they have experienced sexual violence, or have witnessed it.

Benson asked Elizabeth Hart from DVSAS what she wanted the students to know about sexual assault. Hart said the take away is that sexual assault is about power and control, and that in healthy relationships each partner has the power to say yes or no. Hart also urged the students to respect boundaries, and to realize the harm sexual assault causes and that the trauma can have long-lasting effects.

Hart also said that consent has to be freely given, it’s reversible, all parties have to be informed and enthusiastic and specific — saying yes to one thing does not imply saying yes to everything.

“We’re all responsible for creating the world we live in and the culture around us. I think that if we all work together that we can really create a culture of caring and respect that ends dating violence,” Hart said.

Duckworth asked Quinn what response students can expect from the school district when they report unhealthy relationships and sexual assault. Quinn walked the students through the district’s protocol and explained that school employees are mandatory reporters, meaning they have a legal obligation to report any allegation of abuse.

Duckworth also asked how Quinn intends to make sure the conversation surrounding healthy relationships continues into the next school year. Quinn said that school officials intend to work closely with students and that holding the assembly was the first step.

“Students, if we haven’t been there for you in the past, I apologize. Please give us another chance. We are re-doubling our efforts. This is a learning organization, we’re all continuing to learn and I am optimistic that working with students like Tyrel and Grace and Alex and the rest of you that we’ll make a real difference,” Quinn said.

Resources

Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services: 24-hour Help Line: 360-715-1563, Email: info@dvsas.org.

Lummi Victims of Crime: 360-312-2015.

Bellingham Police: You can call anonymously at 360-778-8611, or go online at cob.org/tips.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.
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