Students take on effort to change sex-assault policy  

TIM JEAN/Staff file photoStudent organizers Lexi Regan, left, and Julie Tschirhart talk with the media about walkout held last week at North Andover High in protest of the school's treatment of sexual assault victims. Over the weekend, Regan and Tschirhart met with state representative, alumni and parents to gain support for changes in school policy.

NORTH ANDOVER — It wasn't a typical weekend for a couple of North Andover High girls seeking changes at school.

Spearheading an effort to get school administrators to develop policies that better address sexual assaults of students, seniors Julie Tschirhart and Lexi Regan met with state Reps. Christina Minicucci, D-North Andover, and Tram Nguyen, D-Andover. They also spent time Saturday and Sunday with a couple of Scarlet Knight alumni and a dozen local mothers backing their cause.

After the 18-year-olds led a schoolwide walkout last week, they felt like their voices were stifled and they had more work to do because administrators blocked the press from campus during the event, the girls said.

They describe hundreds of students walking outside with handmade signs to protest the recent revelation of school safety plans, which are documents used at the high school to dictate where on school property victims of sexual assault can be in relation to their attackers who are still allowed at school.

It was one case in particular that sparked the girls' newfound voice for victims of sexual assault.

On March 12, The Eagle-Tribune published a story about North Andover senior Eliezer Tuttle, 18, who was arrested and charged with raping a girl twice in New Hampshire.

The story drew three more girls – two who say they were attacked by Tuttle, and another who says she was attacked by a different, unnamed boy – to the newspaper. Two told a reporter, and provided documents as evidence, that the school used safety plans to control where they could be in the building, under threat of school discipline if they fail to comply. The third girl did not sign the safety plan presented to her.

The school issued a renewed safety plan to the student who says she was assaulted by the unnamed boy as recently as March 18, at the start of a new trimester. The Eagle-Tribune was given a copy of that contract by the girl's mother.

The newspaper does not name victims of sexual assault without their consent.

Alumni Shannon Hill, now 22, and Abigail Kibler, now 24, are circulating a petition with a goal in line with what the organizers of the walkout are seeking. 

"The current procedures are similar to those used for student violence, such as fighting in the hallway, and thus fail to adequately address the needs of sexual assault survivors," the petition reads.

Hill and Kibler are the reason the high-schoolers connected with state Reps. Minicucci and Nguyen, Tschirhart said.

"When we found out we were going to get to meet with them, I put together a folder with the walkout stuff (photos and speeches delivered through megaphones), contracts, and a list of questions from students," she said. "Each of the reps have a copy of that and they shared their contact info so we could stay in touch."

In an emailed statement about meeting with Tschirhart and Regan, Minicucci wrote: "What better place to find solutions that work than from the students themselves. The young women that led the walkout are not looking to place blame, but are instead looking to learn from the past and make a difference. Keeping the focus on the future, they have developed a focused list of priorities that includes student voices in the development of future policies around sexual assault and harassment."

Minicucci continues in her email: "I am so proud of these young women. They are organized, thoughtful, and collaborative, already working with the school administration, parents, alumni, and the state delegation to move their ideas forward. They model the kind of behavior our whole community can get behind."

Nguyen said she's encouraged by the activism of young students and dedicated to seeing through any policy change that could be needed. 

The school district announced last week that outside legal counsel will be hired to review policies, practices and forms related to reports of student criminal activity or harassment.

"I have been an attorney and advocate for victims of sexual assault for my entire career before coming into this role (as a state representative)," Nguyen said. "School discipline in this area is very specialized. At this point, really because we aren't on the ground, we're trying to learn more about what's going on."

Regan, one of the two girls organizing the effort, said she walked away from the meeting feeling energized.

"The meeting went really well. It was awesome to have the access to talk to our state reps and get their point of view on everything," she said. "It was really pivotal in our understanding of what can be done in our school system."

Another person the girls say has been helpful is Lisa Waxman, the mother of a senior and a member of North Andover High's Class of 1999. 

"They will be the ones to make the difference," Waxman said of Tschirhart and Regan.

She said she heard about the contracts before the news coverage started, but not of what they entailed.

"My daughter is good friends with one of the victims," she said. "I was aware that she had to sign a contract, but I wasn't aware of what it entailed. Seeing it in black and white, it's very different. It's obviously disappointing and alarming. I'm willing to help the girls with whatever they need, and there are a bunch of other moms who feel the same."

Also alarming, she said, was being one of the only parents allowed onto school grounds for the walk-out. She said she was bringing her daughter and a victim, both of whom attend a night school program at North Andover High.

"(Some parents) wanted to go and support the kids, but they were told (by police) that they couldn't let any media or parents in because it was a school event and a school event only."

Superintendent Gregg Gilligan said the same when a reporter tried to access campus during the walkout.

In response to students working with state representatives over the weekend, Gilligan said "(High school Principal Chet) Jackson has reached out to the alumni group to see if they'd be willing to meet with us at some point this week to hear their voices."

Since a large crowd is expected, this Thursday's School Committee meeting will be held in the North Andover Middle School auditorium. It starts at 7 p.m.