22 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY march 28-april 3, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com against CUSD made by a 2017 CHS graduate claiming she was subject to a hostile environment, on the basis of sex, in 2015. Legally speaking, the investigation— like many of CUSD’s own investigations—was bureaucratic in nature. The Office of Civil Rights was specifically looking at Title IX, a federal statute enacted in 1972 that guarantees all people in the U.S. have participation in educational activities that receive federal funding. That applies to the presence of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools and school-related activities. “Under the Title IX and the regulations, once a school district has notice of possible sexual harassment between students, it is responsible for determining what occurred and responding appropriately,” according to OCR’s determination letter. “The district is not responsible for the actions of a harassing student, but rather for its own discrimination in failing to respond adequately.” A series of redacted Title IX reports viewed by the Weekly lay out a similar pattern. In 2017, a student wrote to then-superintendent Dill-Varga with a complaint. “I am writing about an ongoing issue that has greatly affected my ability to feel safe at Carmel High School.” Details are redacted, but the student’s frustration comes through. “I have been into ___ office approximately __ times until this case was handed to ___…I have been told to __ and __ by the CHS administration…I do not feel safe at school.” A Sept. 4, 2020 letter from Paul Behan, the former CUSD chief technology officer and Title IX compliance officer (who has since retired) describes the findings of an investigation into four students. “The district has reached the conclusion that sexual harassment occurred,” Behan wrote. “The conduct had the effect of creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive educational environment. The district has taken steps to prevent this type of incident from occurring in the future and to protect your [redacted] and other students at Carmel High School.” He sent a letter with some of the identical Title IX language eight months later, on May 14, 2021, regarding a different investigation into Students A and B. The allegations were substantiated. In its 2017 investigation, OCR looked into a student whose ex-boyfriend was arrested for drug activity on campus. Rumors began to spread that the ex-girlfriend had cooperated with police, and she saw signs of the rumor everywhere—her name in bathroom graffiti, and in derogatory comments in classrooms and hallways. “The name calling lasted one to five minutes each time, it occurred more than three times a day, and the name calling consisted of the following four names in a rotated fashion: slut, whore, bitch, and narc,” OCR reported. Her grades dropped; she sometimes felt ill and missed school. OCR determined that CUSD violated Title IX requirements; the district agreed to pay for counseling for the student. It wasn’t until four years later, in 2021, that a 2020 graduate, Itzél RiosEllis, posted on Instagram about her own experience of sexual assault while she was a sophomore at CHS. She woke up the next day to more than 1,000 messages in support. “All I really wanted was closure,” says Rios-Ellis, now an artist who lives in San Francisco. “I didn’t mean for this to turn into anything so big. I just decided I had had enough, because I had been carrying this weight for so many years.” Dozens of students and former students posted their own stories, Carmel’s own MeToo. “A movement was sparked,” according to a 2021 Sandpiper story. At the time, Eva West was a sophomore at CHS. She had also been sexually assaulted, and posted about it on Instagram. “I felt like it was my responsibility to come forward so other girls felt willing to come forward,” says West, now a freshman studying kinesiology at the University of Hawaii. She says after she went public, at least a dozen girls shared stories with her. “Kids call it the ‘Carmel Bubble,’” West says. “Horrible things happen at the school and the community never hears about it.” West didn’t log a formal complaint—“It wasn’t a matter of, ‘I need help,’” she says. “It was, ‘I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.’” So she became an advocate. That included educating her fellow students—and administrators. “I was trying to get them to start some sort of education and also change the culture at the school,” West says. “There was so much victim-blaming.” Those efforts included, with other students, visiting classrooms to present on consent. She helped create a task force on sexual harassment and assault. The Monterey County Rape Crisis Center started staffing an Our Voices Club on campus in 2021. (For the 2023-24 school year, the nonprofit has a $29,250 contract with CUSD, which includes staffing and snacks for the Our Voices Club, as well as presentations to student groups.) West says assistant principals Debbi Puente and Craig Tuana were at first defiant in acknowledging there was a problem. But she ended her senior year in 2023 on a positive note with the administration. Before she graduated, she says they called her in just to say thank you for the work she’d put in educating the campus community. “Some people are so stuck in their ways. That wasn’t them,” West says. “They were genuinely wanting to hear what we had to say and genuinely wanting to make change, they just didn’t know how.” Change sometimes comes in waves. Former CHS students describe a group chat from around 2018 that included roughly 10-20 boys. The group was called “Respecting Women,” but its content was anything but. Boys would obtain sexually explicit photos or videos of girls, then share them in the group chat. When girls learned about this, they were under the impression it was best to do nothing—they believed they could be punished in relation to child pornography, even though they were victims. Amy Allen and her grandmother, Diane Allen, tell a similar story about what happened to them in 2023. (Allen and her brother live with their grandparents in Carmel Valley.) Amy Allen says right after the taunts began, Puente called her into the office. Puente then called home to tell the grandparents what happened and, Diane Allen says, to encourage them not to talk about it, claiming that Amy could be criminally charged for manufacturing child pornography. “That kept my mouth shut for a while,” Diane Allen says. “It scared the hell out of me.” Amy was ashamed, and started keeping to herself. She was anxious and her grades fell. Eventually, by her junior year, the harassment was so persistent she says she went to talk to Tuana about it. It felt like suddenly, the gears started moving. The offender was removed from school. Allen received counseling. Although she just wanted the harassment to stop—she didn’t care about a police investigation—she cooperated with law enforcement. It was only then, interviewing with a detective, that she saw herself as a victim. As her case was finally getting traction, high-level personnel changes unfolded around her. On Dec. 16, 2022, “District administration received notice of various allegations against [John Doe] spanning multiple months,” then-deputy superintendent Ofek later wrote in a letter. That same day, Lyons was walked out of the school and placed on leave. In March, Ofek wrote to the Allens: “The allegations meet the definition of sexual harassment and bullying…the allegations are substantiated.” At the end of the 2022-23 school year, Tuana moved back into the classroom as a special education teacher. CHS senior Marcus Michie is the Associated Student Body president, meaning he also serves as a non-voting student rep on the CUSD board. An amendment to the constitution means that in the 2024-25 school year, those will be two separate elected student roles, one more focused on school spirit and one on policy. “There’s a lot to this role,” Michie says.