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Students suspended after school calls rape-awareness note bullying

Updated October 15, 2019 - 3:01 pm

PORTLAND, Maine — A 15-year-old girl was suspended for bullying after trying to draw attention to what she believed was an unaddressed problem of sexual assaults involving students at her high school. Now, she’s taking the school district to court.

Aela Mansmann, a 15-year-old sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School outside Portland, has been at odds with Cape Elizabeth Schools for a month after posting a note in a bathroom that said: “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” She and two other students who left similar notes were ordered suspended.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is taking on Mansmann’s case and calling on federal court to stop her suspension. The organization filed a motion Sunday in Maine asking for a temporary restraining order against the district, and a hearing is slated for a Portland courtroom on Monday.

The ACLU’s filing states that Mansmann has taken a “public stance as an ally for victims and survivors of sexual violence.”

Mansmann said she plans to keep doing that.

“I think anyone that has experienced any sort of sexual violence or harassment is especially vulnerable when they are going through their healing process, and to have an ally who is willing to advocate for that, I think is crucial and beneficial,” she said in a telephone interview.

Superintendent Donna Wolfrom declined to comment Tuesday. A district spokesperson also said there would be no official comment because the case is in court.

The school’s principal, Jeffrey Shedd, said in a letter to the community Wednesday that a male student believed he was the target of the note campaign, and that he felt unsafe at school in the wake of the notes.

The ACLU is arguing that’s not the case, that Mansmann posted the note to raise awareness of a general problem in the school community about sexual assault.

She said she did not allege that she was a victim or mention any accusers or abusers by name.

The two other students suspended from the school, about 6 miles south of Portland in one of the wealthiest communities in Maine, have not come forward publicly. The suspensions led about 50 students at the 550-student school to walk out of classes one day this month.

Mansmann appealed her suspension, which has not occurred yet. It was unclear whether the other two students had appealed or served their suspensions.

Emma Bond, a staff attorney with ACLU Maine, said the organization isn’t aware of any other cases it has handled in which a student was suspended after sounding an alarm about sexual abuse. However, other school districts in the country have grappled with how to handle sexual assault allegations as the #MeToo movement grows in influence.

In New Hampshire’s capital city, Concord High School recently installed “tip boxes” to allow students to anonymously report concerns about sexual assault, harassment and other issues after the arrest of a teacher last year on charges of raping a former student. A 13-year-old girl had been suspended in 2014 for complaining about the teacher’s behavior with other students at Rundlett Middle School. The suspension was expunged from her record after the teacher’s arrest.

Students who report sexual abuse can face backlash, and it’s critical for districts to provide them with support, said Erinn Robinson, a spokesperson for Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, a nonprofit group that works to prevent sexual assault.

“The decision for a student to disclose or report abuse is already a difficult one,” Robinson said. “When school districts ignore, or worse — punish — students for coming forward, those students suffer in silence, and don’t get the help they need to begin healing.”

Mansmann’s mother, Shael Norris, couldn’t agree more, and said she has her daughter’s back in the case.

“This is the world I versed her in, and there’s no other way in my household than to stand up and speak out,” Norris said. “I have raised her to do exactly that.”

Associated Press writer Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.

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