A few weeks ago, two Colorado teenagers created a platform for students at Jefferson County Public Schools to share painful stories.
“I’d just been thinking a lot about kind of the racist or anti-Semitic incidents that have occurred to me, and that they must have happened to so many other people,” said Elyza Berry, 18, a recent graduate of Lakewood High School. “The stories of one person alone aren’t as powerful as many together.”
Berry and Lakewood senior Joshua Lujan were inspired by @timesupjd, an Instagram account where students at a New York high school shared anonymous accounts of sexual harassment, discrimination and more.
First, they got the permission (and blessing) of the students behind the other account, Lujan, 17, said. Then the students created an online form for Jefferson County students to submit their own stories — and began posting them at @timesupjeffco.
“It just blew up, like exponentially,” Lujan said.
As of mid-July, the account had received more than 700 submissions of anonymous reports, ranging from cruel jokes about LGBTQ students, women and students of color, to allegations that counselors and district administration didn’t adequately respond to reports of sexual assault and rape.
The students running the account have tried to keep out names of the accusers as well as those of the accused.
“Our intentions behind the account, of course, are not to demonize or criminalize anybody individually,” Lujan said. “… We’re just trying to create change so that we all feel safe in our schools.”
In one post, a female student from Summit Ridge Middle School said she wasn’t helped by her counselors when she reported feeling suicidal. “I’m here only because of my family and friends who helped,” she said.
“I was sexually assaulted and when I told my counselor about it she said the best she could do was ‘make sure we didn’t have a class together next trimester,’” another recent post submitted by a student at Dakota Ridge High School said. “we already had a class together that trimester. it was miserable.”
A Black student at Lakewood High School said a group of upperclassmen called him the n-word and told him to “go back to the cotton fields” in the boys’ locker room.
‘We want to be part of the solution’
After starting the account, Berry and Lujan say they were contacted by a diversity and equity specialist at the district who gave them some guidelines for reporting incidents — which they posted on the Instagram account for students to see.
Some of those guidelines, as posted, include:
- First, take a moment to make sure you are in a safe space and have your mental needs met.
- If possible, try to document details about the incident soon after the incident occurs. This can be a note, a phone memo, a typed document, a talk with a trusted individual who can help, or whatever works best for you.
- Report the incident to your school Principal or (Assistant) Principal, your Community Superintendent, the Legal Services and Employee Relations Department, or the Superintendent. Once reported, Jeffco staff will conduct a prompt inquiry and take reasonable steps to mitigate future harm during the period of the inquiry.
- Know your options. Complaints may also be filed with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission, U.S. Department of Education, and Office for Civil Rights, or Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
- While we would like to be notified of these incidents as soon as possible, sometimes an individual is not ready to come forth in this way or needs support in doing so. We are here to help when they are ready.
Lujan said the specialist who talked with them has “been a big help.” But he and Berry are frustrated that they haven’t been contacted by anyone from district administration.
“We should be safe, and welcomed, and listened to and seen in our schools, and that’s not happening,” Lujan said. He thought diversifying the curriculum and school board would be important steps.
Berry would like to see changes such as a more diverse reading list to help familiarize students with the experiences of people of color, and racial diversity clubs and Gay-Straight Alliances at every school.
She also feared there weren’t enough counselors to adequately handle students’ concerns.
“I went to Wheat Ridge (High School) for two years, and there, even if I wanted to speak to my counselor about something academic, I couldn’t do that,” Berry says. “They were never in the office and they were never available for students to talk to.”
Cameron Bell, a spokesperson for Jefferson County Public Schools, said the district is aware of the Instagram account.
“We are committed to ensuring that all of our schools support student success, safety, and wellness,” the district said in an emailed statement provided by Bell. “As a global process, we follow-up and look into reported concerns and have policies and specific processes for doing so.”
The statement went on to name several different complaint policies in use at the district, including a “public/parent complaint policy,” “student complaint policy,” a “staff complaint policy,” “non-discrimination policies,” school-level protocols and Safe2Tell, a platform managed by the state attorney general’s office that takes complaints related to student health and safety.
“In any circumstance where we can identify a concerning situation including posts on social media, we will investigate to determine if there is sufficient information to support the complaint and then work with school administration to take appropriate action,” the statement continued. “We want to be part of the solution and work to solve problems from the perspective that we care deeply about our students, staff and community.”
Report, even when schools are closed
Students can submit an anonymous tip about topics such as mental health, safety, bullying or substance use through Safe2Tell by calling 877-542-7233 or visiting safe2tell.org. The program can refer students with mental health concerns to Colorado Crisis Services or other community resources.
School-related tips are forwarded to multiple adults to ensure that someone can help, even if counseling staff is limited, said Essi Ellis, Safe2Tell program director.
Meanwhile, Safe2Tell encourages districts to foster a community of “trusted adults” whom students can confide in, Ellis said.
She declined to say whether the program was seeing an increased number of complaints related to racial discrimination in the wake of widespread protests over police brutality against Black people and national reckoning on racial injustice. (State law requires that Safe2Tell reports are kept confidential.)
But Ellis encouraged students to report any incident related to racism or other safety concerns, even while schools are closed.
“(We’re) trying to focus on letting youth know that we’re still here,” Ellis said.