Another former high school student from Boulder took the stand in court this week, one of several who have recently been accused of sexually violating a peer. The details of his case are remarkable only in the sense that they happened in real life, and that enough people believed his victim’s claims for them to make it as far as the courtroom: He “grabbed” her in a friend’s basement, according to police reports Boulder Weekly reviewed; he “dragged” her to a couch, alcohol was involved, she said “stop,” she said “no,” and he spent 10 minutes assaulting her, the victim alleges. She stopped attending classes and eventually transferred schools, was hospitalized for suicidal tendencies, and three years later, after therapy and gathering a sense of support, took her case to the Boulder Police Department (BDP). He’d tried to shove his fist in her vagina, one of her friends told a detective. A seven-month investigation from June to December of 2020 led to an arrest warrant, and after 28 days of BPD trying to locate the juvenile—who in 2020 had graduated from a Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) high school—he turned himself in.
Remove the particulars of time and place in this case and it blends smoothly into a line up of young men from Boulder County—CU and BVSD students—recently accused of sexual assault. Some accusations have made it to the courtroom, but many don’t.
In notes on the case, after interviewing the victim for the first time, a BPD detective wrote: “One of the reasons she decided to report was because she felt REDACTED was ‘kind of the person that would do this again to people.’”
Many sources for this story agreed to be interviewed on the basis of anonymity, due to experience with and fear of social and professional retaliation for speaking on the topic of sexual violence.
The accused juvenile who appeared in court this week played on the same football team as Aidan Atkinson. The two appear in uniform, side-by-side in the Fairview Knights’ 2018 football program. Atkinson was arrested in the fall of 2019 after allegations from multiple young women mounted into a criminal prosecution; 18 months later, due to COVID delays, he stood before a judge and jury, and his victims testified to their trauma. In May 2021, Atkinson was acquitted of his most serious charges (five counts related to sexual assault) and eventually pled guilty to two misdemeanors resulting in a year of probation and 50 hours of community service.
Hundreds of Fairview students walked out in protest the next day. In what they saw as a vacuum of adult-assisted justice, the student group BVSD Survivors and allies took to microphones and read out demands: more prevention efforts, better investigations and greater attention to their voices.
BVSD administrators responded: They said they’d heard the students loud and clear, throughout the last school year, they responded with several district-wide changes. BVSD’s Title IX policy (the federal civil rights law that protects equal access to violence-free, federally funded learning environments) got an upgrade: new contracts with new prevention education specialists were signed; investigations into some administrators are ongoing; communication strategies have been clarified; a new council has been formed for student and community input; and more actions are in the works, BVSD says. “We will be working to communicate, to listen, to do all the things that we can do to build trust,” BVSD’s communication director, Randy Barber, says.
With a 22% increase in teenagers reporting to Boulder County emergency departments for sexual violence from 2020 to 2021, and a multitude of open civil and criminal cases involving the school district and/or its employees and students, many in the community wonder: Is BVSD’s plan enough?
This week, the first bells of the 2022-23 school year are ringing. In terms of safety, support and accountability, what can students and the community at large expect?
Everyday Alyssa walks into Fairview High School, she puts on “like, a shield,” then gives herself a pep talk: “I’m like, OK, I need to protect myself and just get through today, because it’s uncomfortable, and I never really know what could be thrown at me,” she says. Alyssa asked to use an alias out of fear of being bullied for speaking out about the school environment.
Alyssa was a freshman last year, and says she’d been called “slut” and “whore” just for walking down the hallway—mild versions of the between-class groping and harassment that other young women at Fairview have reported to BPD detectives.
“I feel like Fairview staff chooses to ignore what is going on,” Alyssa says, which “100%” affects her ability to learn.
Fairview is one of BVSD’s 56 schools. The district serves approximately 30,000 students across 500 square miles between Boulder, Broomfield, Erie, Eldorado Springs, Gold Hill, Jamestown, Lafayette, Louisville, Marshall, Nederland, Superior and Ward.
“It’s hard to walk past people that you know are doing things every day,” Alyssa says. “They have [this attitude], like, ‘If I don’t get caught doing anything, then I never actually did anything.’”
Her two older sisters also attended Fairview; that many of the young men from BVSD accused of sexual violence have multiple victims is a detail not lost on Alyssa. “It’s probably the most toxic place I have ever been in my entire life, so I do not feel comfortable or safe there,” Alyssa says. “It is—it is just so miserable.”
Trust issues between the student body and administrators are widespread, explains incoming Centaurus High School senior Anna Adams. “Either the school administration has failed them before, or the legal system has failed them before, or they’ve had a peer who didn’t have a good experience. It’s going to take a long time … to get people to really consider [change is possible],” she says.
Students understand BVSD is responsible for their safety during school hours and events, but many acknowledge the district alone can’t provide them the sense of security they deserve.
“We need to bring our community into the conversation,” says incoming Fairview senior Sadie Hudson. “This isn’t an issue that’s isolated to high schools or any schools in general. This is an issue that we’re facing as a community.”
A new prevention strategy
Sydney Wu, another rising Fairview senior, says she used her college application essays to wrestle with the question of how to change toxic school cultures. Her answer? More education.
This spring, BVSD redesigned how it approaches body safety and sexual assault prevention lessons. In March, it issued its first-ever call for proposals from community organizations to provide sexual health curricula for students in kindergarten, seventh, eighth and high school grades.
Providing a “comprehensive health curriculum … isn’t something that’s new,” explains Jordan Goto, BVSD’s health and wellness coordinator, but formalizing its distribution is.
Before summer vacation began, BVSD had reviewed and contracted two community organizations—Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (SPAN) and Blue Sky Bridge (BSB). Each will provide and/or deliver curricula that meet the Colorado Department of Education’s “Comprehensive Health Standards;” the former for seven-12 grades and the latter for kindergarten.
“Sex education and comprehensive sex ed is optional, not mandated in Colorado,” explains Dr. John Shields, a national Title IX policy expert and research scientist at the California-based health equity nonprofit ETR. He has concerns that BVSD’s education plan is insufficient, despite meeting state standards: “We’re obsessed with just attaining the floor,” he says of limiting consent education to certain grades. “And so things like best-practices—data-informed decision making—these are not in the realm yet.”
Goto says while students could opt out of these health classes, opt-out rates are so insignificant, “they’re not even measurable.”
But a sexual assault survivor from Fairview tells Boulder Weekly it was common last year for some male athletes to opt out of school-wide presentations and events related to sexual assault. She says it’s resulting in echo chambers.
Anne Tapp, SPAN’s executive director, lauds the district’s plan: “We’re hopeful this is a way to institutionalize really critical information for students in BVSD.”
Beginning this semester, students in seventh and eighth grade health classes can expect three one-hour lessons about sexual assault prevention; high school health classes can expect four one-hour lessons. The lessons will be delivered by SPAN educators or BVSD health teachers that receive SPAN training.
Tapp says SPAN designed its prevention curriculum around the evidence-based program Safe Dates, which BVSD approved in a modified form to incorporate more age-appropriate content that’s inclusive to students of all genders and orientations.
BVSD’s kindergarten teachers can also deliver the body safety lessons themselves after receiving training, or a BSB educator will visit their classrooms. The kindergarten curriculum—which introduces concepts such as trusted adults, “personal space bubbles,” consent, boundaries, and private parts—will be delivered in 15-minute lessons to classrooms once a week, for four consecutive weeks.
“It’s very developmentally at their level,” says Trish Wood, BSB’s prevention and education manager. The primary goal is “to build empathy and make sure kids grow up to respect each other’s boundaries.”
Because kindergarten is the only elementary grade to include body safety programming in Colorado’s academic standards, the organization will resume visits with third and fifth grade classes if school counselors or individual teachers reach out. “The district feels that this information is still really important,” Wood explains. “So they’re not mandating it, but making it available as an option for the school.”
Shields, however, says BVSD must do more to make a “comprehensive model” truly comprehensive: “Science says that if you want skills and behaviors to change, you’re going to need at least 10 to 15 hours of content.”
A parent, who requested anonymity after her daughter left BVSD due to being bullied after her assault was publicized, agrees BVSD’s new prevention education plan isn’t enough. Her analogy: “They went down to the drugstore, and they got a little Band-Aid, and they put it on a wound that’s gushing blood.”
Shields won’t single out BVSD, as many U.S. school districts face similar situations. “But from a preventionist with a scientific perspective, it is a Band-Aid,” he agrees. “It isn’t at the dosage that will result in actual outcome.”
And with research available on what works and what doesn’t, he wonders, “Then what is the purpose of educating students in this one-off kind of way? … We start worrying about resources, intentions, the scientific mindset—like, what’s happening in this district?”
Title IX upgrades and clarification
Since the student walkout and protest, BVSD has created new ways for students and community members to provide input on Title IX issues; in 2021 the district upgraded Title IX policies and clarified assault reporting procedures. And students have been responsive to the changes, administrators say. By the end of 2021, after BVSD launched an educational campaign about how to report sexual violence, for example, the number of emergency room visits from teenagers for sexual violence in Boulder County had doubled, compared to 2019.
During the summer of 2021, BVSD also created a new Title IX coordinator position (Many others have served that role, including BSVD’s general legal counsel, Kathleen Sullivan). Attorney Elizabeth Francis was hired, and throughout the fall of 2021, she hosted a series of student round-tables and stood up a Title IX advisory council, both designed as arenas for more voices to express and act upon Title IX concerns.
BVSD students Wu, Adams and Hudson all applied and were selected for the advisory council last year. Together they focused on the “first building block,” as Wu describes it: educating their peers about Title IX. “We can’t advocate for our rights if we don’t know about them,” Hudson explains. This year, they’re planning larger-scale presentations for high school student bodies.
“I’m ashamed that it took until my junior year for me to even know what Title IX was,” Adams says, “and so I don’t want that to happen to anybody else.”
From its inception, Francis says the Title IX advisory council was intended to include community stakeholders, but last year the district had only the capacity to convene and focus on student voices. Now, Francis says, they’re ready to include more members, like guardians and leaders of community organizations. Based on feedback, Francis says, “they want a little bit more periodic, active participation.”
Applications for community members and new students interested in joining the advisory council are open until Sept. 2, 2022. The students created the application, set the deadlines and defined the council’s scope of work, Francis says.
But in watching events unfold at BVSD over the last couple years, some parents and organizations have already begun taking matters into their own hands, pushing for change beyond district policy. “It has become obvious to our community that systemic issues and leadership failures have contributed to the harmful culture that exists today,” says Tracy Dundon, a BVSD parent who, earlier this year, collaborated with State Sen. Faith Winter and State Rep. Jennifer Bacon on legislative bill SB22-207, intended to standardize Title IX policies and best-practices across Colorado school districts.
In early August, Dundon was asked to participate in a research project sponsored by Rep. Bacon in coordination with an Urban Leaders Fellowship policy team investigating Title IX gaps and systemic issues nationally at the K-12 level.
“As parents, we send our children to school and we assume that if there are laws in place that foster safe, healthy and equitable learning environments, that the district must be compliant,” Dundon says. “But that is not always the case, and I find this negligent and concerning.”
BSB, as part of the statewide Colorado Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Coalition, has also advocated for adding body safety and consent lessons to health standards of more grades. “With those curriculum standards changed, [prevention] would be easier,” Wood says.
Other support available for survivors
Beyond what BVSD provides, several other avenues for support and/or justice exist for sexual assault survivors, explains Emily Tofte Nestaval, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Victim Law Center. “We recommend that survivors reach out and get an advocate of some type that can help them walk through all these processes.”
For example, survivors can apply to receive financial support from the District Attorney’s office, even without pressing charges, Boulder County’s Chief Trial Deputy District Attorney Catrina Weigel explains. Victims are still eligible to apply for victim’s compensation if their case “falls in that category of ‘we think that it happened, we just can’t prove it,’” Weigel says. Survivors can get reimbursement for services like therapy, self-defense classes, lost wages, changing locks and more.
“There does not have to be a criminal prosecution,” Weigel says, though a police report must be made. A board reviews the police reports and makes decisions about how money is allocated.
“We have a really good relationship with BVSD,” adds Weigel, who has served as chief of the DA’s sexual assault unit since 2019. “We do try to work together. For example, we try to make it so that our victims only have to talk to one person, so they only have to come in and tell their story one time.”
Peer-to-peer support opportunities also exist. SPAN and MESA (Moving to End Sexual Assault) have collaborated on an afterschool prevention project, Peers Building Justice, designed “to promote social justice and resist violence in our communities.”
Anyone in Boulder County can call MESA’s 24-hour hotline (303-443-7300) for immediate, additional support in English or Spanish, or text “BRAVE” to 20121.
Community is welcome to help
“My whole life I’ve heard there are bad people everywhere, and you could get hurt anywhere,” Alyssa says. “Fairview really makes that come to life.”
Fairview isn’t the only BVSD school accused of neglecting survivors; schools and districts aren’t the only entities culpable in creating such environments. Students come from different homes with different cultures, gain exposure to varieties of media and learn about sexual behavior in various ways, including porn and older students.
Teachers are starved for resources and time. Wood says, for example, the limitations she anticipates BSB will face this year relate primarily to capacity and scheduling—most kindergarten classrooms structure their days similarly, which challenges educators who could visit multiple classrooms in a day. The organization is hoping for more support and participation from parents to address educational gaps; in addition to an explanatory, bilingual video for parents, BSB has planned a series of virtual “parent talks” to welcome questions or feedback from guardians. (Dates are forthcoming, to be announced on BSB’s website.)
Policy advocate Dundon reminds other BVSD parents that Title IX is not federally funded; school districts have limited resources for compliance efforts. “Where a district or the government allocates its limited funds and resources is a declaration of their priorities,” she says. “Our students deserve better.”
Francis, the Title IX coordinator, hopes new community stakeholders will apply to the advisory council. The Biden administration’s new Title IX regulations are currently in an open comment period, and the final publication is anticipated later this year. “Once we have a better idea of what those regulations will look at, then the council will be a part of identifying and having conversations around impacts to our policies,” Francis explains.
In a back-to-school email, Fairview’s new principal acknowledged “the difficult times that this community has been through” related to sexual violence allegations and administrative negligence, reasserting “it is crucially important that we reestablish trust.”
When it comes to ongoing cases, BVSD stresses the information it’s able to provide is limited, considering students have privacy protection rights, particularly as juveniles. “We share as much as we possibly can,” Francis says.
“We would love to be super transparent on everything, but … ultimately there are legal issues that we have to face,” says BVSD spokesperson Barber. “With all that in mind, our hope is to be as straightforward and open as we can be,” adding BVSD’s goal is to be more proactive, “not to just communicate with a community when they’ve had an incident.”
Students understand the only way they’ll be able to win the peace they desire at school is to invite more people to their cause. Wu, Hudson, and Adams all agree the next council should include more male and nonbinary students.
“Title IX is not just, like, a women’s rights issue. It’s everybody’s issue,” Adams says, and Wu agrees, describing an “extraordinarily large group within our community, many of them male-identifying, who see these issues come up, especially within our administration, and they hear the conversations, but they do not feel that it affects them.”
The impacts of sexual violence don’t stop at the victims, Alyssa says—it also disturbs “everyone that surrounds them and cares about them.”
Another Fairview survivor agrees: “It’s much easier to just stay silent about it,” she says. “School is not a pleasant environment to be in.”