Parents and guardians of high school girls have expressed outrage over the use of “School Safety Plans” in cases of sexual assault in North Andover. The plans serve as contracts that restrict where victims can be in school in relation to their attackers or accused attackers.
Numerous parents and guardians have reached out to The Eagle-Tribune over the past week with the same question: Is this happening where my kids go to school?
The term “School Safety Plan” is mentioned in handbooks crafted by several school districts across the Merrimack Valley. However, there were no instances in which handbooks specified using the plans in cases involving a student who has been sexually assaulted by a classmate.
After learning about "School Safety Plans" that serve as contracts to restrict where sexual assault victims can be in North Andover High School in relation to their attackers or accused attackers, parents in other communities wonder if the same practice is used at their child's school.
Asked about their district’s policies, procedures and forms used in cases of sexual assault between students, most area superintendents agree that bullying and any kind of assault need to be considered individually. Some local school leaders said it is inappropriate to use such restrictive contracts with victims of sexual assault.
Andover Superintendent Sheldon Berman said while school safety plans are used, they aren't normally used for sex assault cases
"I think most schools use safety plans," Berman said Tuesday. "They are meant to protect the victim in these situations, but i would never want to make a judgment about what happened in North Andover because I don't know the circumstances"
He added, however: "In Andover I believe we do use safety plans, they are more used for harassment - usually sexual violence and sexual assault is really a different matter. For us, what we place as a priority is the safety of the victim."
The Andover School District completed a review of its policies in December 2018, “making the necessary modifications to address new issues requiring a policy position, updates to remain in compliance with legal requirements, and other considerations of the sitting (school) committee,” a statement on its website reads.
The principal, superintendent or designee is tasked with determining the appropriate steps to investigate the matter, according to the policy manual.
The policy states that administrators have the right to “remove a student from privileges, such as extra curricular activities and attendance at school-sponsored events” based on a student’s misconduct.
“The school administration will discipline or take appropriate action against any student, teacher, administrator, or school personnel who retaliates in any form against a person who makes a complaint or reports or participates in an investigation of a harassment complaint,” as stated in the policy. “Acts of retaliation may result in immediate disciplinary action up to and including expulsion or dismissal, even if underlying harassment is not proven.”
In North Andover, the safety plans are not mentioned anywhere in district documentation. The Eagle-Tribune found out about them after several students reached out to a reporter to share their experiences and paperwork as proof.
They were forthcoming after the arrest of an 18-year-old North Andover High student, Eliezer Tuttle, who is currently being held in a New Hampshire jail on rape charges. Since 2017, three girls told school officials, and some told police, that Tuttle had raped or sexually assaulted them, according to documents provided by the girls or their families.
The three North Andover High students, and the girl Tuttle is accused of raping last month in New Hampshire, are working with the same attorney, Wendy Murphy. Two of the North Andover girls signed their own school safety agreements. The mother of the third girl did not allow her to sign it.
A Title IX activist, former Middlesex County prosecutor and sexual violence lecturer, Murphy has been vocal about the school’s use of the safety plans as de facto restraining orders against two of her clients. Murphy says the contracts violate her clients' civil rights.
“It’s not uncommon to see a school retaliate against a victim,” she said. “My guess is this is happening in other communities, and that for the most part, parents and students are obedient because it’s the path of least resistance.”
In Lawrence, the term “personal safety plan” appears in the School District’s bullying policy.
The policy reads in part: “Before fully investigating the allegations of bullying or retaliation, the principal, Superintendent, or his/her designee will take steps to assess the need to restore a sense of safety to the alleged target and/or to protect the alleged target from possible further incidents. Responses to promote safety may include, but not be limited to: creating a personal safety plan; pre-determining seating arrangements for the target and/or the aggressor in the classroom, at lunch, or on the bus; identifying a staff member who will act as a “safe person” for the target; and altering the aggressor’s schedule and access to the target.”
Lawrence public schools spokesperson Christopher Markuns said the district works with a student’s family to determine if it’s appropriate.
“The goal is to ensure the student’s safety – and perhaps just as important their sense of safety – with as little disruption or perceptible change to their normal school day as possible, preserving both their privacy and learning experience,” Markuns wrote in an email to the newspaper. “Students do not sign safety plans.”
Haverhill High Principal Glenn Burns, hired six months ago, said he’s seen instances in which no contact orders are obtained by students.
“Those alert us to what the rules are. Then we make sure we put things in place so that we support the kids (who sought the restraining order).”
The school also issues a document called a School Safety Plan, the principal said, but “typically it’s the perpetrator that receives the parameters of how they’re going to travel, how they’re going to communicate. It’s not so much the victim.”
“Some of the major ones,” he said of when they’re implemented, “are any kind of inappropriate action between two people, bullying or harassment.”
The Haverhill High handbook gives principals permission to “exercise discretion in deciding the consequences for a student who has violated disciplinary rules.”
The consequence for sexual harassment is suspension or referral to police. A student who physically abuses others, fighting or disorderly conduct when “expressly related to religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender and/or violation of nondiscrimination policy,” are subject to the same consequence.
Methuen’s student handbook has a detailed entry about what the district considers harassment and the investigative process for complaints and punishments.
“It is important to remember that sexual harassment, or the existence of a sexually hostile environment is determined from the viewpoint of a reasonable person in the victim's situation,” the Methuen handbook reads. “When an individual complains about sexual harassment or a sexually hostile environment, school officials must assess all the facts and circumstances from that viewpoint.”
The handbook states that an admission of guilt, an acknowledgement of a verbal warning and a promise to not commit the abuse again could be enough. But it’s up to the superintendent take more serious action, like “formal letters of reprimand, suspension, expulsion, discharge or other disciplinary action.”