Dozens of students poured out the front doors of Tompkins Square Middle School in the East Village Friday, to protest what they described as rampant sexual harassment from peers that school officials are doing too little to rein in.
The mostly female student speakers, who addressed a crowd of their classmates through a megaphone, detailed a school climate where girls expect unwelcome comments and touching — a problem that’s intensified since full-time in-person classes resumed this fall.
“We hear rape jokes and sexual assault jokes being made left and right… nothing is being done about it,” said 13-year-old Esme Thorne, one of the demonstration’s organizers.
“I’ve gone to the bathroom crying multiple times because of it… it’s really sad we don’t feel safe in our school anymore,” Esme said.
The verbal and physical harassment, which students said also includes homophobic and racist jokes, has gotten so bad that some middle schoolers say they can’t focus in their classes.
“Kids are super distracted from their work because they’re so afraid to be in their classrooms,” said 13-year-old Rain Barak, another organizer.
A different girl told her classmates through tears that she wears “sweaters with my jeans because I feel uncomfortable to walk around school with revealing clothing.”
Students, parents and staff agreed that the issues have intensified since the resumption of full-time in-person classes following 18 months of pandemic upheaval and full or part-time remote learning.
Many kids experienced acute mental health challenges during the pandemic and missed out on formal and informal lessons they would’ve gotten in school about healthy ways to interact with peers. Instead, they spent more time on the internet and social media, where toxic behavior can flourish, educators said.
“These kids just finished a year and a half with functionally no structure,” said one Tompkins Square teacher who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “During that time they were online the entire time… and the internet is a terrible place. Homophobic, racist, sexist comments were normalized by virtue of these kids having free rein on the internet 24/7.”
The teacher added that many educators were wary of giving their normal sexual education lessons online for fear that parents might be watching or recording.
“It’s no wonder things are a mess,” the teacher said. “We’re floundering trying to come up with solutions.”
The challenge isn’t unique to Tompkins Square.
City public school social workers and guidance counselors have reported a flood of student challenges ranging from kids in acute mental health crisis to social media disputes that spill over into classrooms.
Quadira Coles, the deputy program director at Girls for Gender Equity, an advocacy group focused on gender discrimination, said sexual harassment has plagued city schools since long before COVID, but “we’ve seen this exacerbated because of the pandemic and the way young people are experiencing other in this virtual, digital world.”
Education Department spokesman Nathaniel Styer said “harassment of any kind has no place in our schools and we’re providing supports to Tompkins Square to ensure these students and the larger school community know their safety and well-being is our number one priority.”
At Tompkins Square, many students who have experienced harassment say they’re frustrated at the response of school officials — who they say have often dealt with incidents one by one rather than in a systemic fashion and used consequences students find too light or ineffective.
Esme, the rally organizer, said a boy who harassed her was given two days of in-school suspension where he completed his work from the office.
“That’s no punishment,” she said.
Styer said “the school took immediate action by suspending the accused students and a Title IX team will be on-site next week to directly assist with trainings, investigations and quick implementation of the school’s action plan.”
Other kids said they’ve gotten the message from peers, and even adults, that their clothing choices play a role in the harassment they’ve faced.
“I should be able to wear what I want without worrying I’m going to distract this boy, because I’m not wearing it for them, I’m wearing it for me,” said one student who spoke out at the walkout.
The school could be doing more to address the root causes of the harassment, said the teacher who wished to remain anonymous.
“Interventions need to take place, open, frank conversations acknowledging the problem. It’s not enough to just deal with the individual issues as they come up… you are leaving out the dozens of kids not receiving the message,” the staffer said. “Until you attack it at its root, change isn’t going to happen.”
The principal, who declined to speak to The Daily News, plans to meet with parents early next week and form a “culture and climate” team composed of students and staff, and review the school’s protocol for responding to harassment allegations, according to the DOE.
One challenge has been getting kids to speak up at all.
Middle school kids navigating the rocky waters of adolescence and peer acceptance can already be reluctant to draw negative attention to themselves, and some students are embarrassed to be involved in an incident of sexual harassment, even if they know it’s not their fault, said Esme.
Other students have lost faith in the staff to adequately address their concerns, the teacher said.
“A lot of them don’t feel like there’s any point in coming forward, and that’s a huge challenge we’re fighting against,” a school staffer said.
Clara Lin, the mother of a student who participated in the walkout, said her daughter didn’t feel comfortable confiding in her about harassment she experienced until she started planning to participate in Friday’s walkout.
“She didn’t want to talk about it at home since it’s been too upsetting,” Lin said.
Several weeks ago, Esme and some classmates began hatching a plan to take matters into their own hands, while putting their school on notice.
They settled on a walkout, spreading the word through flyers, social media, and “gossip,” Esme said.
In the days and hours leading up to the event, Esme was nearly paralyzed with fear — worried that not many students would participate, that she might face punishment from school officials, and that she was putting herself “on the radar” of the “guys that are perpetrators of this behavior” by speaking out.
But that all changed when the schoolhouse doors flung Friday morning and she saw roughly 100 of her classmates pour out.
“Seeing … pretty much the whole school down there, it was so amazing,” she said. “So many people were there, so many people shared and used their voices. It was such an empowering moment.”
Esme credited staff and administrators with supporting and listening to the walkout. “That made it all so much better and easier,” she said. “I do love my school. I don’t think my school is a bad place… I know we have the potential to do better.”
The exercise served a dual purpose, kids and educators said — putting pressure on adults to step up their response to the harassment, and letting students know that they’re not alone.
Even in the hours after the walkout, Esme said she felt a detectible change in the atmosphere in the school.
“Something in the air did shift… I can’t explain it,” she said. “There will be actual change.”