The Durham school board plans to change parts of the student code that a teacher fears could discourage students from reporting sexual assaults or unwanted sexual behavior.
Rule II-3 of the Student Code of Conduct covers sexual assault or harassment and reads: "No student shall engage in behavior, whether consensual or non-consensual, which is lewd, overly affectionate, or of a sexual nature.”
Hannah McMillan, a social studies teacher at J.D. Clement Early College, wants the phrase "non-consensual" removed because the phrase "makes it possible that victims of sexual assault on school campuses are subjected to the same punishment as perpetrators of sexual assault."
"As written, the policies of Durham Public Schools could allow for a victim of sexual assault, who was forced to engage in a non-consensual sexual encounter, to be punished either inside or outside of school, causing major disruptions in their learning, safety, and mental health," McMillan wrote in a letter to Superintendent Pascal Mubenga.
"This policy and punishment sends a message to our students and community: Do not report sexual assault. You will be punished,' she continued. "For this reason, it is essential that our District Superintendent and Board of Education immediately consider removing the words 'non-consensual' from the policy."
McMillan, who could not be reached for comment, also argued that the rule, as written, contradicts the district's Policy 4410 on Sexual Harassment, which forbids retaliation against employees or students for reporting sexual harassment.
"If we follow this policy for sexual harassment, then our district should also follow a policy where victims of sexual assault are not subject to negative action either for reporting or for the incident of sexual violence itself," McMillan wrote.
The rewritten provision reads: "No student shall engage in any sexual assault, sexual violence , or sexual harassment against any person, including any conduct prohibited by Board Policy 4410, Sexual Harassment."
School board members agreed last week to place the proposed changes on the agenda for their next meeting later this month.
"I absolutely agree this needs to pass, if we're creating a situation where it could be possible a victim was feeling like they could be punished," said School board Chairman Mike Lee.
Neither school officials nor McMillan linked their concern about the policy to recent incidents at the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability and Jordan high schools where female students reported being video recorded in compromising positions, without their consent.
The videos were then shared across the two schools. Law enforcement officials have open investigations in both cases.
"I wasn't thinking about a specific incident," Lee said in explaining his support for the rewrite. "I was just thinking about providing a safe environment for those experience those incidents to report them."
School board member Natalie Beyer said McMillan's recommendation was an "obvious improvement" to the rule.
Debbie Pitman, the district's assistant superintendent of student services, told the school board that she was not aware of any situation where a victim of sexual assault or other forms of sexual misconduct was punished under the rule, but agreed that it was important to rewrite it to make it clear that victims of sexual misconduct will not be punished for coming forward to report such incidents.
Rule II-12 covering indecent exposure and sexual behavior will also be revised to remove "whether consensual or non-consensual."
The rule currently reads: "No student shall engage in behavior, whether consensual or non-consensual, which is lewd, overly affectionate, or of a sensual nature."
The new rule would read: "No student shall engage in behavior which is lewd, overly affectionate, or of a sensual nature. This includes both consensual behaviors and behaviors directed towards others without their consent."