By Dan Haley
Lauren Flowers' online petition at Change.org reached 906 supporters on Tuesday morning. That is 906 people, most of them from Oak Park or River Forest, who agree with her that Oak Park and River Forest High School has not done enough to battle sexual misconduct by students at the school.
The comments on the petition are many. Some offer words of solidarity to a cause. A startling number recount personal experiences as victims of what the signers perceive to be a rape culture at OPRF and well beyond.
Flowers' petition drive runs parallel to our reporting this week of school and police investigations into an August incident that led to the recent suspension of popular OPRF wrestling coach Mike Powell. While Powell was reportedly not at home, his Oak Park house was allegedly the site of a late-summer party involving OPRF athletes. The lawyer for a student, since suspended from participation in athletics at the school, told the Journal Monday that his client is among several young men alleged to have assaulted a young OPRF female student at the party. The lawyer, Luther Spence, says his client is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Those investigations will continue and over time we will see the results. At least two other alleged cases of sexual misconduct involving students and staff or among staff are also pending.
More immediately, though, a new and disturbing issue has surfaced at our high school. Does the school respond adequately to allegations of sexual assault and aggression within the school community? Has OPRF worked to create a culture of safety and respect among students on issues of sexual consent? Does the school proactively address, through curriculum and counseling, a definition and expectation of "consent"?
Let's stop and say that this issue is raging far beyond the hallways of Oak Park and River Forest High School. As a wider culture, we have, over time, created complex and serious conflicts and challenges relating to sexual encounters, especially among younger people. OPRF did not create those challenges but in our community, it is in a particular position to address them.
In her petition, Flowers calls for a stricter school policy in responding to "students involved in sexual misconduct." She asks that the school have a four-year curriculum focused on consent. She wants more awareness of issues related to sexual misconduct and zero tolerance of a rape culture within the school. And she implies that all students are not held to the same standards of behavior and specifically calls out student athletes.
As the dad of a young woman, this discussion hits close to home. The issue is real and pervasive. That same concern is repeatedly voiced on the petition's comments. Parents are worried for their daughters and for their sons. Certainly as parents, we have a primary role in directing and supporting our kids. But the effort to address this also needs to be shared, defined, and reinforced across the community.
The start of this public discussion reminds me of the recognition, nearly a decade back, that OPRF had a greater-than-normal challenge with alcohol and drug use among its students. That conclusion surfaced in a statewide survey of student behaviors administered by the school. I was surprised then when, in un-OPRF-like fashion, Supt. Attila Weninger did not push back on the results and instead acknowledged the problem and welcomed a full discussion of it.
A dedicated band of parents took up the issue and have, to a degree, kept focus on it over these years.
It will be important to see the response now from the interim high school superintendent and a swimming pool-weary school board. Are they up for, and open to, the frank talk needed to take on this painful and pervasive challenge?
Answer Book 2018
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2018 Answer Book, please click here.
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