Cape Elizabeth High School sophomore Aela Mansmann is appealing her three-day suspension for bullying, a punishment levied after she posted notes in a school bathroom alleging there was a rapist in the students’ midst.

Mansmann said she was suspended Friday and told she would begin serving the suspension Monday. But her parents appealed the suspension in writing to school officials and were told she could attend school while the appeal is pending. Neither Principal Jeff Shedd nor Superintendent Donna Wolfrom could be reached Saturday, but a letter from Shedd to Mansmann and her parents dated Friday confirms the suspension for violating the school department’s bullying policy.

Aela Mansmann, a sophomore at Cape Elizabeth High School, admitted to school officials that she posted a note on a bathroom wall Sept. 16 that read “There’s a rapist in the school and we know who it is.” “I was really hoping to spark a conversation between students and the administration,” she said. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Mansmann admitted posting a note on a bathroom wall Sept. 16 that read “There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is.” She said she was trying to draw attention to several incidents of sexual assault over the past year or so that some students felt were being ignored or not properly handled by school officials. Other students posted similar notes and Mansmann said she knew of at least one other student who had been suspended, although this could not be independently confirmed. She said Saturday she was “confused” by the suspension for bullying, since she did not name anyone in her note.

“I was really hoping to spark a conversation between students and the administration,” said Mansmann, 15. “I was told someone made a complaint that I was bullying them. So I thought, why is this person self-identifying as the (alleged) rapist?”

Mansmann’s mother, Shael Norris, said her daughter had admitted to school officials she was one of the students who left “rapist” notes in two school bathrooms on Sept. 16. Norris said she was told by school officials as late as Sept. 26 that her daughter would not be formally punished for writing the note. Then on Friday, Mansmann was pulled out of class and told she was being suspended, on the same day the Press Herald published a  news story about students’ concerns over sexual assaults and policies at the school, including the notes alleging a “rapist” in the school. Both Wolfrom and Shedd said they were confident there was not a rapist in the school.

Mansmann said she and other students had made school officials aware of several sexual assault allegations involving students before posting the notes. Mansmann, who helped organize a regional summit on sexual assault prevention and awareness last spring at Southern Maine Community College, said several survivors of sexual assault had told her what happened to them. School officials said that all incidents of reported possible violence are taken seriously, but that privacy laws stop them from taking about specific cases.

Norris said that Mansmann had been questioned by school officials and police on three occasions between Sept. 16, when Mansmann posted a note, and Sept. 26. Norris was at two of the meetings and said school officials wanted Mansmann to identify the other students who posted notes in two school bathrooms about a rapist. Norris, a co-founder of the national sexual assault prevention group SafeBAE told school officials she supported her daughter’s decision not to name other students.

“They wanted her to name everyone who told her about an assault, but she’d didn’t feel comfortable doing that,” said Norris.

The school district conducted eight investigations into possible violations of Title IX last school year, seven of which concerned sexual harassment or assault. Title IX is a federal law preventing gender discrimination and sexual violence in education.

The district investigations led to findings that violations “more likely than not” occurred in four cases, all of which led to disciplinary sanctions. The details of the cases and their outcomes are protected by federal student privacy and employment laws.

Norris questioned why her daughter was being suspended for bullying, when the school policy calls for a pattern of bullying to be established and her daughter admitted posting notes one day. Besides appealing the suspension, Norris said, she has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union because she feels her daughter’s right to free speech has been violated.

Wolfrom told News Center Maine (WCSH/WLBZ) she felt students could have voiced their concerns in ways other writing the notes. Wolfrom said the notes caused confusion in the school and “had adverse effects on other students.” The notes also caused officials to spend “a lot of time investigating,” she said. The school department also released a statement to News Center Maine that did not specifically mention Mansmann’s suspension, but addressed the department’s bullying policy.

“It is important to understand, however, that when a student’s speech bullies another student, we are required by law and by school board policy to investigate and take prompt action, even if that same student has also spoken out on a matter of public concern,” the statement reads.

Norris said the suspension of her daughter could have a chilling effect on students who are victims of violence, and those who advocate for them.

“I think this could prevent any survivors from coming forward,” said Norris. “They (school officials) want to tell everyone the school is perfect and safe. But no school is completely safe, this is an issue in every community. What we’re trying to do is have the district understand their obligations and train staff to handle the issue.”

 

 

 

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