By Isabel Thomas and Nell O’Hara
If you are an avid social media user or a member of the Baltimore School for the Arts community, chances are this time last year you were very aware of an Instagram account that had the sole purpose of allowing survivors’ of sexual harassment or assault in the BSA community voices to be heard.
This account, Survivors of BSA (originally called Victims at BSA), would soon garner the attention of the school, local, and national community. But on the night before it was created, March 22, 2021, it was just beginning to come out of the woodwork.
Visual arts senior Ruth Dawit was the one with the vision for this account. On this night she was FaceTimeing her friends and they began discussing how whenever they had brought their own cases of sexual assault to the previous Assistant Principal for Student Support, Mary Evans, nothing was done about it. Dawit said, “After that conversation, I got really mad. I was like, okay, we need some change.”
The next day the Instagram account was created and instantly gained traction. “My phone was actually overheating from all of the notifications,” Dawit said.
Taking on the role alone of going through everyone’s stories and making sure they were heard was extremely overwhelming for Dawit. Because of this, the day after the account came into fruition she reached out to her friend, Sydney Lane-Ryer (Film ‘22), for support. That day they became a team.
Together they would read the direct messages (DMs) sent to the account and share them to the community. The fact that this was finally happening was imperative and the goals were clear.
Lane-Ryer said, “What I was trying to do was give survivors a place to share because so often by BSA administration and in their personal lives there had been nowhere to go.” After being silenced for so long, survivors were at last being given the platform to have their stories actually be heard and understood.
While Ruth and Sydney knew that there were a lot of stories to be told, they were not aware of just how many there were. On the first day of the account, 68 stories were shared.
Susan Rome (parent, teacher, and class of ‘82) was one of the many reading each and every story. “It just made me think about the 40 years of sweeping things under the rug,” said Rome.
This account gave students a voice that many had not had before. Lane-Ryer said, “I think that it did give at least some people that form of closure or let them know that they weren’t alone.”
Ruth mentioned that she was still in contact, a year later, with people who she connected with through the Instagram account. “I’m glad survivors have found each other,” she said.
Students who were watching this page in action were also given hope that a change in policy was finally going to come to BSA.
And while sharing every story, Lane-Ryer and Dawit were behind the account trying to find ways to make the BSA administration really listen and do something. “What helped us a lot was reaching out to the administration and saying to them ‘is this what you want your donors to see?’” Lane-Ryer said.
By being direct, they were able to get something out of the school administration and the district (even if it was not perfect), all through virtual modes. Rome said that the Instagram account coming out during online school and COVID-19 was a good thing. “It allowed a very emotional thing to be exposed when we weren’t in each other’s faces all the time. We needed the pause to be able to reassess how it was going to be handled.”
The results of that virtual pressure that students placed on the district and school administration could be seen in changes made as the 2021-2022 school year began in-person. Some of the changes included a movement team whose purpose is to keep students monitored and safe in the building, more security cameras, an adjusted dress code policy, and training sessions from Planned Parenthood and TurnAround, Inc. for both staff and students.
TurnAround, Inc. is a local service with a mission “to educate, empower, and advocate for all people impacted by intimate partner violence, sexual violence, and human trafficking.”
Behind the scenes, there were people working hard to make these things happen before students and teachers returned in the fall. In April of 2021, an advisory council was formed to assist in this transition. It was mostly made up of students who elected to be on the council, but also included two arts teachers, two academic teachers, and two parents.
Rome, who was selected as one of the two parents, sees the role of the advisory council to be a combination of things. She said, “I think that self-respect and wellness are so central to the message of the council.”
She continued, “And then on the other side, there’s the very practical things like ‘Who do you feel safe going to?’ ‘What are the consequences going to be?’ ‘What’s the mechanism to keep us safe?’ It is a multi-pronged approach. It can’t be just students, it has to be administration and students working together.”
After a few months of meeting, gathering information, and planning, the council presented their findings and recommendations to Principal Rosiland Cauthen. As the former Theater Department head, Cauthen was entering her first year as head of the school, and she said that “stepping into leadership at such a difficult and tumultuous time was very challenging. I did want to think about what the previous administration had been putting into place and find ways to take that to the next level.”
In regards to the advisory council, Cauthen said “we haven’t been able to fulfill all of the recommendations of the advisory council, but it’s been nice to have the input of the advisory council as we try to move forward.”
Upon reflecting on the advisory council’s work in the past year, Rome said, “I think we have to look at it as a five-year arc. Culture that has been developed, a culture of hiding these issues away for four decades, I think expecting it to be all rainbows and unicorns the first year is not realistic. If it was a sudden ‘about face’ like that, the foundation wouldn’t be lasting.”
BSA is in the midst of building that foundation. As the school and the larger community moves forward in this endeavor, there is a lot to consider.
As Rome said, “realistically, it’s a breakneck pace around here, students are being pulled in a million directions at one time. There’s enough stress. But it’s exactly when there’s that stress that you see an uptick in bad behaviors.”
Sometimes it can be discouraging, as Dawit said. “There’s no definite way to prevent sexual harrassment or assault from happening unless you just convince people to not violate others.”
Intervention and prevention is an important step, one that is hopefully building with the school’s efforts. Lane-Ryer said, “there is still a really long way to go but I think we got to a good starting point and at least got people to acknowledge that there is a problem.”
Getting the truth out there was a monumental first step. After starting the account a year ago, and seeing how much has happened from reckoning to real action, Dawit has realized that “most of the time it just takes one person to speak out and then everybody bands together.”
To contact these writers, email Muse Newspaper at email@example.com.