By Valarie Honeycutt Spears, Lexington Herald Leader
A Lexington teen who said she was sexually harassed in high school by another student is focusing on the problem among her peers.
“I have been dealing with sexual harassment since I was 11 years old; however, there was one particularly bad incident my sophomore year that moved me to action. That was when I had to report someone for sexually assaulting me in the hallway before school,” Celia Ziliak, 16, said in her report released this month in conjunction with the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team.
The incident convinced her that the issue of sexual harassment required immediate attention and solutions from all members of Lexington school communities.
“I thought the best way to start was to back up my argument with data,” Celia said.
Celia, currently a student at Lafayette High School, told the Herald-Leader that she created a survey to combat the sexual harassment she and her peers experienced while in school.
“I saw how much impact the #metoo movement made but noticed that it wasn’t covering the issues of students in middle and high school. I knew that the only way to get people to focus on the issues facing students was to present data that showed how extensive the issue was,” she said.
Lafayette Principal Bryne Jacobs said that “although Celia’s research is not specific to our school, her study will help spark conversation, reflection and action here at Lafayette, and I hope, in other schools across the nation. “
“Celia is one of Lafayette’s top students and we are proud to support her passion about serious issues affecting our nation and community. I commend her efforts to raise awareness and understanding about sexual harassment. We hope Celia will continue to pursue research in this area and I have personally worked with her to adjust her schedule for next year so she can continue this important work. Our goal is to make Lafayette a place where we set the expectation that these types of things do not happen, but if they do, where students feel comfortable reporting concerns knowing we will take action,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said the Lafayette campus had a “wonderful culture …but we are always looking for ways to be better” and that he seeks feedback from students to make improvements.
Fayette County Public Schools spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said the district is committed to creating environments where every student “is able to learn at high levels free from fear of harassment of any kind.”
“To that end, we have clearly defined processes and procedures for reporting, investigating and taking action to address any instances of harassment,” Deffendall said. “While I cannot address any specifics about the case involving this individual student, I can assure you that our processes were followed and the incident was addressed appropriately.”
Celia does not identify her school in the report and said she did not ask for the respondents’ schools on the survey, just their state and city. The 834 respondents from Kentucky were spread out across the state with many responses from Lexington and Louisville, she said.
“It’s important to note that this report doesn’t represent just one school or one county, it is meant to expose the culture and climate surrounding sexual harassment in high schools,” Celia told the Herald-Leader. In the report, several suggestions are proposed by students to reduce sexual harassment “and it shows that students are willing and able partners in finding solutions to this issue.”
“This problem is everywhere and it’s across the country,” she said. “Its such a pervasive issue.”
Celia included in her report the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights’ definition that “sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
She said that “sexual assault is any physical contact that is sexual in nature and not consented to. “
The report said 834 Kentucky students and a total of 1,034 students nationwide responded to an online survey on sexual harassment designed by Celia, the founder and director of a group called (S)HE Matters.
(S)HE Matters stands for Sexual Harassment Education Matters, the S is in parentheses to represent She/He/Them because “this isn’t just a woman’s issue,” said Celia. “Our mission is to decrease sexual harassment in high schools and to change policies as well as implement sexual violence education in schools. We recognize everyone’s voice as valid and strive for more student voice to be included in education decision-making processes.”
Celia said she initially designed her survey on peer-to-peer sexual harassment in high school so that it could be distributed to a large sample group in her school district. However, after months of working closely with administrators, she said her request was denied.
“I was told it was because of the sensitive nature of the content being discussed. This setback was hard, but I knew the research was needed, so I consulted with the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team and turned the survey into an online version,” said Celia.
Together, she and the student voice team distributed the survey through social media platforms.
Deffendall said “we encourage our students to be civically engaged, and members of our Grants, Research, Accountability, and Data Department met with Celia over the summer to advise her on designing her research project.”
The report said, “it is important to acknowledge that due to the nature of the survey, it is impossible to generalize the results of this study to any population, beyond the original sampling group.”
Celia said the “most impactful and unfortunate finding” was that 84 percent or 4 out 5 respondents had dealt with sexual harassment. She thought it significant that 30 percent of those who said they were sexually harassed reported being raped and 54 percent of respondents had dealt with sexual assault.
Fifty-eight percent believed their school could have done more to prevent sexual harassment.
In addition, 66 percent of respondents said they just ignored the incident and 44 percent of respondents changed the way they dressed to avoid unwanted attention.
She said 67 percent of respondents did not know about policies against sexual harassment at their schools, and 79 percent had never seen someone punished or reprimanded for sexual harassment at their school.
University of Kentucky Associate Professor Kristen Mark said Celia approached her with her data to do an independent study because she was interested in the overall work of the Sexual Health Promotion Lab, where Mark is the director.
Mark said she did not have a role in the collection of the data, but is excited about potentially getting approval from an ethical review board to take a look at what Celia found.
Mark said she collaborated with Celia in a presentation about the importance of sexuality education at a recent conference.
Celia said she created the survey because she knew that victims existed but there were few studies that attempted to show them in the high school age group.
“I knew that while it may be easy to dismiss the experience of one person, it is a lot harder to dismiss those of over 850 students,” she said.