Rape and sexual assault are violent crimes that no child should endure. Nearly as chilling is the idea that teenagers who are victims should be forced to change their routines in the supposedly safe environment of school — altering where they walk, where they study, where they hang out with their friends — to accommodate the movements of their alleged attackers.
This appears to be standard operating procedure at North Andover High School, however, based on the accounts of a number of students and parents, whose stories are supported by copies of contracts they were asked to sign by school administrators after reporting attacks. Those contracts come with consequences for failure to comply, including suspension from school.
To be sure, North Andover is far from alone in having students sign agreements to steer clear of one another. The key difference is that other schools use them in cases of bullying, or when the students involved have more or less equal responsibility toward diffusing a situation. North Andover High School appears to be the exception in coercing kids who’ve reported rape or sexual assault to sign these forms. That it does is appalling and cruel.
Students at North Andover High are rightly outraged, so much that they organized a walkout last week as a show of support for victims of sexual assault. School leaders owe them apology — especially those who’ve reported assaults — along with the assurance that they’ll change their approach toward victims and potential victims of sexual violence.
Anything less than that will be just another callous sign of disrespect to kids who’ve already endured too much, from people whose job it is to protect them.
The ugly truth of North Andover’s policies came to light because of rape charges filed in New Hampshire. Eliezer Tuttle, 18, a North Andover senior, is accused of forcing a girl he’d met at the mall to have sex with him in the back of his car in Salem on Feb. 17 — at one point holding her down and cutting off her airway, according to police — then driving her to Epping and doing it again. At the time, Tuttle was on probation in a similar case involving a North Andover student.
Two more students at the school had accused Tuttle of sexual assault, beginning in 2017, as reporters Breanna Edelstein and Zoe Mathews discovered from talking with students and parents. The three North Andover students who’d made accusations against him were all asked to sign “safety plans” to stay away from him on campus; presumably he signed similar agreements.
That’s not new for North Andover, as Edelstein learned from another student who says she was assaulted by someone else but asked to sign a similar contract. It is unusual among area school districts, as Edelstein documents in a story in today’s Eagle-Tribune. And it is egregious.
Wendy Murphy, an attorney who represents the four teenagers who’ve accused Tuttle, says the contracts violate state law as well as the state Constitution.
Earl Metzler, superintendent of Timberlane Regional School District in Plaistow, New Hampshire, tells Edelstein the approach is quite different from what he’s experienced as an administrator in either state. Communities are mandated to provide an education, he notes, but they have many options for doing that while ensuring the separation of students who shouldn’t be in the same building.
“There are contracts that typically are used with two kids who don’t get along — not with sexual assault,” he tells Edelstein of the safety plans in a story in today’s Eagle-Tribune. “I shouldn’t have to go to school and see the person that sexually assaulted me.”
It is time for a reckoning in North Andover. It is time for school officials including Superintendent Gregg Gilligan, who’ve largely avoided urgent questions about the use of these safety plans, to explain why students are made to sign them when they’ve reported sexual assaults.
Then they must tell the community what they’re doing to change their policy.
The North Andover School Committee meets at 7 p.m., this Thursday, in the North Andover Middle School auditorium. It would be an opportune time to deliver that explanation.