Opinion: Speaking up to end harassment in high school

Gianna Biaggi, Sonoma Valley High School, class of 2013. (Cropped image)


We live in a nation, and a world, where girlhood still means a life lived in fear, a life of second-class citizenship. Education is the key to gender equality yet, globally, more than 6 million girls are out of school. Of the girls that are in school, anywhere in the world, there are barriers to completing their education, such as their physical safety on their way to, and within school.

In our idyllic Sonoma County, thousands of girls are still unsafe at school.

I was one of those girls.

I spent my freshman year of high school at St. Vincent De Paul, under the leadership of principal Dr. John Walker. My experience at St. Vincent was a textbook case of sexual harassment. I spent months enduring the verbal slurs and physical groping and assault of a prominent member of the varsity basketball team and a varsity football player.

I could not walk in a hallway, into a classroom, or even into the yard at lunchtime, without some form of harassment and abuse. I changed my routes to class, I memorized my abuser’s schedules so I could avoid them, I got a boyfriend to (unsuccessfully) scare them off, I wore unflattering clothes and would physically hide myself in their presence, yet the abuse continued.

What was happening to me was an open secret, my peers and teachers saw that this was happening, yet no one, not even myself, had the courage to speak up.

There came a tipping point when I grew weary of daily harassment and finally reported my abuse. I was brushed off by administrators, and by Walker specifically, who repeatedly ignored my pleas for support, choosing inaction over protecting me. Finally, one of my abusers was punished with a brief suspension, the other with some follow-up conversations — a slap on the wrist as my abuse was physical, severe and unlawful.

The administration at St. Vincent’s did nothing to protect my identity as a victim, leaving me to a jury of my peers who, choosing the talented male athlete over his less athletic female accuser, found me guilty. As soon as my sexual harassment ended, a whole new cycle of abuse began: retaliation.

I was cornered in hallways and physically threatened. I was chased through the school by a group of angry male athletes. My life was threatened on social media. I was mocked at sporting events with signs. I was repeatedly shunned by my peers and administrators. It was still unsafe for me to be at school. I never knew when the next angry mob would come, or the next threat.

I would hide in the library whenever I was not in class; it was the only place I knew I would not be physically hurt.

I spent a year of my life living in fear and shame at my own school because of the misbehavior of two young men and Walker’s willingness to make excuses for them, to punish them lightly because they had potential as student athletes, as though winning basketball games was more important than my right as a human to attend a school where I was safe from harassment, abuse and assault.

I refuse to hide in shame and silence any longer. I did nothing wrong. The only mistake I made during my time at St. Vincent’s was my reluctance to stand up for myself sooner, to speak out about what happened, to protect other girls from my abusers.

To Dr. John Walker, varsity football coach Gary Galloway, and all the other administrators, students and parents who enabled my year of abuse and retaliation, your inability to protect me from harassment and assault within the doors of your own school is shameful. You failed me, and all the other young girls and women at St. Vincent’s with your inaction. You built a toxic culture of sexism where abuse thrived, where “boys could be boys,” and where the moment I spoke up, I was punished.

I will not stop speaking out until every girl in Sonoma County, throughout the United States, and in our world, is safe at school.

(Gianna Biaggi is a 2017 graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in American Studies. She currently lives in Nairobi, Kenya.)