‘Truth is, it does happen here’

Emergency department visits for sexual violence among Boulder County teens have doubled since 2019—how is BVSD and the community responding?


Gavin Curwick, a 16-year-old junior at Lafayette’s Peak to Peak Charter School, has been attending Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) schools since the second grade, and of sexual violence perpetrators at school, “I just know too many people that basically walk free,” he says. “There’s a lot of people that I think have done things that aren’t held accountable, like, ever.”

When a close friend “had some accusations (of sexual violence) come out against him,” he says the cultural tides swept his friend’s actions under the rug. “I see people that just go, ‘Oh, yeah, whatever.’” 

Reports of sexual violence among teenagers and elementary school students in Boulder County have increased dramatically over the past two years—a trend not unique to this community, but reflective of national currents. While the Department of Justice reports that the total number of juvenile delinquency cases has fallen between 2015-2019, sexual violence was among the few cases to see an increase. Researchers at West Virginia University’s Department of Pediatrics reported “alarming numbers of U.S. adolescents have experienced sexual violence” in a June 2020 study: 26.6% of 17-year-old girls and 5.1% of 17-year-old boys surveyed reported having experienced sexual abuse.

“A large part of it is misogyny,” Curwick says. “Because a lot of guys, I noticed, it’s like those small comments [they start making at a young age] that lead into their actual, like, views…. They started viewing people as less. I can see how that goes, they go down that path.” 

Many BVSD students and parents that spoke to Boulder Weekly reported accounts similar to Curwick’s. “This goes back to the root issue, again— why is it that women [are] still seen as these objects?” says Debbie Pope, a BVSD parent and CEO of YWCA Boulder County, a social justice organization dedicated to eliminating racism and empowering women.  

Data from Boulder County Public Health (BCPH) shows 11 Boulder County residents in the 10-17 age bracket visited an emergency department for reasons related to sexual violence in 2019. In 2021, twice as many young people did so. The trajectory of 2022’s emergency visits thus far closely parallels that of 2021. 

At the elementary school level, reports of sexual abuse are rising, too. “We do see more kid-on-kid abuse,” says Don Shires, director of development and outreach at Blue Sky Bridge, the child advocacy center associated with Boulder’s 20th Judicial District. The organization functions as part of a national network of child advocacy centers, each tasked with providing communities safe and supportive environments for abuse victims, and neutral, professionally-led forensic interviews. 

“Numbers don’t tell the whole story. Is it that people are reporting more? Or is it that there’s more sexual assault?” 

—Janine D’Anniballe, MESA

This year, Blue Sky Bridge broke its record for the most forensic interviews conducted in a month: 38. Forensic interviews happen when law enforcement, judicial and social service agencies need information for sexual abuse cases. In April, Blue Sky Bridge conducted 26 interviews, and “May is shaping up to be very busy,” Shires says. 

But numbers “just don’t tell the whole story,” says Dr. Janine D’Anniballe, director of Trauma Services at Boulder County’s Mental Health Partners, and director of Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA), where she’s worked for 22 years. “Is it that people are reporting more? Or is it that there’s more sexual assault? We can’t really know.” 

In some ways, the increased reportage of sexual violence in Boulder County is a product of design: a sign that BVSD and MESA’s targeted work over the last two years to make reporting sexual violence easier for students is working. D’Anniballe says the call volume on the hotline number they’ve disseminated to BVSD students is up 44%. (The hotline is 303-443-7300 and is available to all Boulder County residents; of the increase in calls, D’Anniballe says, “I don’t know if that’s all teens and young adults, but they’re in that mix.”) 

Over the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, BVSD added a bevy of information to its website, making it easier for students to report sexual violence and educate themselves on what is guaranteed to them under Title IX—a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which can “include sexual harassment or sexual violence, such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion” at any public and private schools or school districts receiving any federal funds. 

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), nationwide, 81% of women and 43% of men report experiencing some form of sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. The majority of those experiences happen during high school years. 

“Among those who reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault, 57% of women and 42% of men said it had happened by age 17. High school-age, 14 to 17 years old, was the most frequently selected age people reported for their first experience (27% women, 20% men).”

And, as the University of West Virginia researchers found, women aged 16 to 19 are four times more likely to be sexually assaulted than women in all other age groups. According to data shared by NSVRC, one male is the most typical perpetrator of sexual harassment and assault for persons of all genders (reported by 72% of women and 35% of men); the second most typical perpetrator, female respondents said, was two or more males (13%). 

The fact that laws like Title IX are needed to help keep people free from sexual violence speaks volumes to default settings of U.S. culture. Several lawsuits and charges have been filed against BVSD, its administrators and male students over the last decade for cases related to Title IX issues. Many of the Title IX policies detail how to proceed if and when sexual violence among students happens, but to stick to the law’s foundational purpose of prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs, preventative and educational measures around sexual violence must also occupy the forefront of a school district’s Title IX compliance journey. 

During the spring semester of the 2020 school year, in response to Title IX policy changes made by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, two Fairview students, Beatriz Sánchez and Sophie Dellinger, took a closer look at Fairview’s compliance with Title IX and sent a letter to the BVSD Board of Education asking for upgrades to BVSD’s sexual violence reporting system. They also asked for students to be actively educated on how to report incidents and to whom. Students need to “be made readily aware of who the Title IX Coordinator is,” the letter asserts—a role school districts are required to fill to maintain and ensure Title IX compliance. 

“They (students) did bring up a legitimate concern about the fact that finding this information (on Title IX and how to report sexual assault) was not easy on our website. And so we actually revamped the website,” Randy Barber told Boulder Weekly in a January 2022 interview.

BVSD then turned to MESA, and over the last two school years, the entities have collaborated on strengthening sexual violence prevention efforts through MESA’s educational programs. MESA worked with BVSD’s legal counsel Kathleen Sullivan, who until recently had been tasked with ensuring BVSD’s Title IX compliance, to stand up a student-populated Title IX advisory council that now meets regularly and provides a venue for direct feedback about students’ perception of safety from sexual violence. In August 2021, BVSD announced it would hire its first-ever Title IX coordinator to organize the council and “guide educators through the process of investigating reports of sex-based harassment and discrimination,” according to BVSD. 

By October 2021, Elizabeth Francis, a lawyer and BVSD alum, was hired as the Title IX coordinator. “This is their education,” she says, and the last few months of relationship-building with students has been fruitful: “All these conversations that we’re having with our students around safe relationships, consent, safe body conversations, using anatomically correct words when we’re talking about our bodies—our students are starting to incorporate into their own conversations and their own relationships at a younger age.”

Francis works with Jordan Goto, BVSD’s health and wellness coordinator since 2019, to identify and address student concerns, which inform their sexual violence prevention strategy.

“From the beginning of all of our work, we heard from students that they wanted to know more about sexual violence, how to identify sexual violence, and where their access to resources and services are,” Goto says. With the increase in reports of sexual violence, “I’m seeing that we’re meeting that need,” she says. “We don’t want to discount that there could be an increase in violence, but we also see that as more people are accessing resources to help.”

•  •  •  •

While increased reportage points to more people using the system, others still feel uncomfortable with the way the sexual violence reporting (and subsequent investigation) process impacts and alters their lives. 

Multiple BVSD high school students and parents spoke to Boulder Weekly on conditions of anonymity about decisions not to engage with the district’s sexual violence reporting process, due to fear of retaliation from BVSD and/or high-school peers, or the various other negative social, psychological, emotional and financial impacts imposed upon sexual assault victims that decide to enter the public eye. (The identities of anonymous sources, and their affiliation with BVSD, were verified by Boulder Weekly.)

“I didn’t want it (my assault) to affect my life more than it already had,” one Boulder High School student told Boulder Weekly via text messages. “I simply wanted it over with! I didn’t want to have to prove myself.”

She claims she was sexually assaulted during the 2021-22 school year: “My assaulter wasn’t held responsible or punished to any degree despite several (female!!) adults being told about it.”

She claims she asked a friend to help communicate her situation to three Boulder High School teachers, two of which were female; she wanted help keeping her assaulter away while at school. “I didn’t tell them (my teachers) directly, as I didn’t want to cause trouble,” she explains. “As in, possibly having to go through (triggering) questioning, confrontation, legal stuff, etc.” 

“I can name several other girls that have experienced exactly the same thing,” she adds. “Expel rapists.”

“I didn’t want my assault to affect my life more than it already had. I simply wanted it over with! I didn’t want to have to prove myself.”

—Boulder High School student

“The reactions people have when they’re assaulted and whatnot, it’s real,” Peak to Peak student Curwick says. (Among those who reported experiencing sexual harassment and assault to the NSVRC, 31% of women and 20% of men said they felt anxiety or depression.)

A female Fairview student, who also requested anonymity, reported similar reasons for not wanting to drag out her sexual assault experience through formal channels—many of which end discouragingly for victims.  

In 2018 for example, three Fairview students accused Aidan Atkinson, then the school’s star football quarterback, of sexual misconduct. In May 2021, Atkinson took a plea deal resulting in one year of probation, 50 hours of community service and a letter of apology. One of the victims testified about the impact the case has had on her life, and the consequences of testifying against Atkinson.

“I went to a high school where sexual assault was the norm,” the victim said, according to The Denver Post. “Why would anybody believe the girl who threatened the hierarchy of the almighty Fairview football team?”

Months later, in August 2021, BVSD was sued by two former Fairview students claiming in the lawsuit that high school leaders knew that a student athlete was accused of raping at least two other students during the 2016-2017 school year, but failed to investigate and did not protect students from facing a hostile environment at school. This led Fairview’s principal of 22 years, Don Stensrud, to be placed on paid administrative leave while district officials investigated the federal lawsuit’s claims that the principal fostered an environment permissive of sexual assault at the high school. 

In a January 2022 interview with BVSD, Randy Barber, BVSD communication director, told Boulder Weekly, “Ultimately, that investigation did finish, and he chose to retire. And that’s about all I can say about that.”

In a May 2022 interview, Barber clarifies none of the aforementioned incidents happened on BVSD grounds, “We haven’t been seeing violent sexual attacks in school.”

As recently as May 13, 2022, a Boulder County jury and judge acquitted a 23-year-old former CU-Boulder student, Braedon Marcus Bellamy, despite evidence found during the hospital examination (administered within hours of the assault) that showed several injuries consistent with the victim’s description of the assault and Bellamy’s DNA on her body, the Daily Camera reported. Bellamy defended himself with a statement that the sex was consensual. (As one of Bellamy’s three charges resulted in a hung jury, prosecutors could hold another trial.) 

Updated BCPH data—derived from the National Syndromic Surveillance Program (a CDC-directed hospital data collection project, where BCPH can access Boulder County-specific surveillance data and query data on variables such as chief complaint, discharge diagnosis and demographics)—shows a 22% increase from 2020 to 2021, or a 100% increase from 2019.

The concept that false allegations of sexual assault are frequent is among the most controversial elements of discourse around sexual violence, but a 2010 report from the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston analyzed cases of sexual assault reported to a major (unnamed) Northeastern university across a 10-year period and found only 5.9% were coded as false allegations. “These results, taken in the context of an examination of previous research, indicate that the prevalence of false allegations is between 2% and 10%,” their investigation states. 

An independent, international analysis of false rape allegations in the U.S. corroborates this range. In 2017, a team of criminal law and criminology professors at two universities in the Netherlands published a study that found approximately 5% of rape allegations in the U.S. were deemed false or baseless. 

In Boulder County and elsewhere, D’Anniballe of MESA says, “There’s still so much victim blaming, which is part of rape culture, or not believing victims—that is still happening.”

Pope of Boulder County YWCA says, “Some of it (not giving victims credence) is also this idea of, ‘Well, that doesn’t happen here.’ Truth is, it does happen here. … There’s a lot of structural and systemic inequity that’s already built into our system.”

She adds, “I think that being able to have people actually talk about this, and survivors feel supported to talk about it, and for all of us to actually realize we’re not alone and isolated in this—it has opened things up for us to have to force the conversation more.” 

The flurry of sexual violence lawsuits, allegations, student protests and walkouts over the last two years, plus BVSD’s efforts to strengthen and make more transparent its compliance with Title IX, led to several BVSD parents and students collaborating with Colorado Senator Faith Winter and Representative Jennifer Bacon on a Senate bill that would help prevent Title IX misconduct in public schools by standardizing Colorado’s Title IX compliance needs. The bill was amended to create a Title IX regulation study in the Department of Education to examine the best practices for prevention, notification, training, and responding to sex-based discrimination and harassment in public schools and the gaps between state and federal law regarding Title IX. Results should be available the spring semester of the 2022-23 school year. 

•  •  •  •

When students return in the fall of 2022, BVSD will implement more changes to its strategy for sexual violence prevention. 

After spending the last two years helping MESA to provide sexual violence prevention education to students on a school-by-school basis, “what we (BVSD) feel ready to do now is to institutionalize this process,” Francis says.

In March 2022 BVSD issued a request for proposal for third-party vendors like MESA who could provide curriculum for standardized district-wide “Title IX-Sexual Assault Prevention and Body Safety Lessons,” and subsequently train educators on how to deliver the lessons. “We’re going to bring this more in-house,” Francis says. “And we’re going to make sure our teachers have the language, they’re talking about it, they know that we’re talking about it, that we’re that we’re prioritizing it (sexual violence prevention).”

In mid-May, with input from students and guardians, BVSD announced the two organizations it would contract to provide the education and training: Blue Sky Bridge and Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN). (MESA submitted a proposal but was not awarded a contract.) Blue Sky Bridge will expand its existing elementary education body-safety programming to Kindergarten classrooms, where it’ll provide four 15-minute lessons to BVSD children over the course of the year—each revolving around foundational concepts, like how to identify “appropriate” and “inappropriate” touches and the characteristics of a trusted adult.  

SPAN is contracted to provide sexual assault prevention curriculum and educator trainings to all heath classes in seventh through 12th grades. The high school curriculum standards most directly address sexual violence and continue to dig at root causes; SPAN must include lessons, for example, on how to “identify what qualifies as clear consent for sexual activity” and “analyze how media messages normalize violence (e.g., physical, sexual, emotional, relational).”

“We’re really ensuring that all students have access to that information … that there’s some consistency in reaching students throughout the district,” says Anne Tapp, SPAN’s executive director. “It’s a good step in the right direction. But we can’t see this as the solution to young people’s experience of sexual and dating violence.”

She says, however, we may be “at a potential turning point—there’s a lot more attention and recognition of just how vulnerable young people are. We saw that through COVID, and the increase in sexual violence and attempted suicides, and addiction issues that have just been embedded in youth culture,”  Tapp says. “You had those vulnerabilities play out oftentimes in interaction with each other. If they’re in pain and unsupported, or don’t know where to go for support when the relationships become toxic, it can be that much more dangerous for them.”

BVSD high schools require a health class credit to graduate, so in theory, all students will be required to take a class that could afford them an opportunity to receive this education. But the state of Colorado “mandates that we provide opt-out (opportunities and) parental notifications for certain types of health or comprehensive sexual education,” Francis says. 

More than one person has questioned the role of a school district in prodiving sexual violence prevention education, prompting questions, too, about the relegation of sexual violence prevention curriculum to health classes and not, say, classes dedicated to history. 

“I guess it is all about the culture,” Peak to Peak student Curwick says. “There has to be some sort of address of bad behavior to others, because people hold people accountable.”

More focused community support would go a long way in addressing the deeper-seeded cultural issues that allow sexual violence to persist. “We have to decide as a community that (eradicating sexual violence) needs to be a priority, and then we need to invest resources to do it correctly,” Debbie Pope says. 

For D’Anniballe, it goes another layer deeper: “Parents point to teachers, teachers point to parents—I think we all need to be pointing to ourselves and saying, you know, what can I do starting today to stop rape culture?” 

Contact the author at eathena@boulderweekly.com