by Abe Asher
Oregon Episcopal School is nearing the announcement of a final course of action in regard to an Upper School student. The student, who was placed on an unofficial leave while under police investigation, has not attended school since mid-November.
The school’s decision will be made public “as soon as possible,” potentially as early as Monday.
Discussions intensified during Winter Break, as the path cleared for OES to conduct its own process of investigation and discipline. Pressure and concerns poured in from all sides.
On Sunday morning the 27th, two days after Christmas, a six-page letter signed by numerous members of the Class of 2016, other students, and alumni was sent to the Jordan Elliott, Mo Copeland, and Middle School counselor Cindy McEnroe. Jordan then shared the letter with the US Leadership Team.
The letter detailed how, in the opinion of the authors and signatories, OES failed to create a safe environment for students by consistently weak and convoluted action in cases of sexual harassment. It’s scope was far beyond the single incident at hand.
The letter stated, “Ultimately, this concern goes beyond any single event or student; community members feel that the OES Upper School has consistently failed to address instances of harassment and bullying, particularly on the basis of gender, race, sexuality, and other cultural identifiers, to the extent that other major school rules have been enforced.”
The letter pinpointed that while students are warned against committing other infractions — like plagiarism — from freshman year onwards, sexual harassment is not even addressed until junior year. “While we are disappointed,” the letter reads, “we are unsurprised at how increasingly apparent it is that a culture of sexism and misogyny exists at our school.”
The letter included a number of specific and general examples of harassment at the school, and the inaction of the school in response.
“How has the Upper School addressed these issues? The consensus: they haven’t,” it reads. “One student felt as though, “many of the teachers have done nothing,” while another, echoing this sentiment, said that she’s “lost respect for [the] administration and the people who are supposed to protect us.”
“Another [student] noted that she had, “spoken to Mo [Copeland] and Jordan [Elliott]” and that, “nothing ever happens.”
“In the Upper School,” the letter posits, “students — particularly those with power and privilege — are confident that blatant acts of harassment and bullying will not result in disciplinary action.”
Among the other serious allegations: “Upper School administrators place a burden unduly upon the victim, rather than addressing the problem at the source.”
“Due to a general distrust of and lack of faith in the administration, these problems are often never reported; students, feeling the situations will not be addressed, do not risk reporting and becoming the victim of further harassment.”
Additionally, authors of the letter took issue with the suggestions of teachers that affected students simply switch out of classes and advisories with perpetrators.
At several points, the letter quotes the OES Upper School Handbook and other statements — showing how school actions have often been at odds with official school policy.
The letter went on to ask that the school institute new policies around its handling of and education around harassment with more resources, explicit attention, and force — concluding with eight expectations for the school moving forward.
- That, beginning in freshman year, the OES Upper School clearly defines what constitutes bullying and harassment.
- That OES makes it clear that bullying or harassment in any form will not be tolerated within our community.
- That the process to report bullying and harassment at OES be clear and consistent for both students and faculty.
- That it be mandatory for faculty members who witness or hear of bullying or harassment report the incident to OES administration.
- That all cases of bullying and harassment be thoroughly investigated and addressed by the school to the same extent as other major rule violations.
- That when instances of bullying and harassment are reported, the administration be clear and effective in communication with all parties involved.
- That OES does not tolerate actions or students that create a “hostile, offensive, or intimidating environment” (OES Upper School Handbook, Child Abuse and Harassment).
- That OES addresses off-campus actions that create a “hostile, offensive, or intimidating environment” on campus to the same extent as if the action had occurred on campus.
This list was followed with the statement that, “If, for whatever reason, OES fails to meet these exceptions, we as students are prepared to organize and advocate for them to be met.”
Both board chairs signed the letter, as did the senior class DC representative. Multiple former Student Body Presidents also signed. In total, the names of more than 75 current and former students were attached.
For Dig Advisor and Dean of Students Kara Tambellini, the letter set off “several days of soul searching,” over Winter Break.
“It was definitely a blow… and, I was super excited at the same time,” Kara said. “Here you have a group of people who are in solidarity, who are articulate, who are thoughtful about what they’re doing, and who are really well-intentioned.”
She went on to say, “History teachers should be proud. This is the history of the struggle for social justice. This is what you’re supposed to do when you feel like your voice isn’t being heard. In that way, I feel really proud as well.”
The letter put her and others at peace that no matter how people feel about the decision, there won’t be any knee-jerk reactions. “I know that they’ve thought carefully about this,” Kara said.
Those sentiments were echoed by other members of the Leadership Team who received the letter.
Input on the final decision in the current case came not just from Upper School officials, but also from Mo, Chris Shuck, and OES’ attorneys.
More discussions are planned for the future, starting next week with the senior class and beyond.
This incident has called into question the current US disciplinary structure. The Discipline Committee was not involved in this case, and no students had any say in the ultimate consequences of one of their peers. Instead, measures were taken solely on an administrative and legal level.
There were, of course, reasons why that was the case — but considering clear student concerns about the structures in place for reporting harassment and other more serious offenses, it is an area of school policy that is due for review.
The school’s general, usually unspoken culture — which many would say is inherently sexist — is due for review as well. If any good is to come of this incident, it might be that it blows open a discussion of that culture and leads to meaningful change.
For the checkered Class of 2016, that would be a very positive legacy to leave OES with.
When reached for comment, US Head Jordan Elliott said, “I greatly appreciated the intentions behind the letter sent over Winter Break. Like other members of the Leadership Team, I was very proud of the active approach this letter reflects.”
“I am eager to engage in conversation with the students who sent the letter about their perceptions and concerns of inaction and programmatic holes. I am committed to working with students and responding fully to the letter’s concerns and requests.”
“We are members of this community together, students and adults alike, and we are all participants in how our principles are upheld. I am confident we can work together to understand the impact of the current situation and agree on ways our school principles are put into action going forward.” There will be more on this story next week.