A Heritage High School senior was banned from participating in Saturday’s graduation after going off-script in a speech at an assembly and accusing school staff of failing to respond to bullying, harassment and sexual violence against students.
The speech on Wednesday by Charles Chandler, 17, was posted to YouTube and has now garnered tens of thousands of views.
Evergreen Public Schools said in a statement that Chandler’s speech contained “inaccuracies, inflammatory statements and hurtful accusations.” Officials said he departed from his pre-approved remarks.
At an all-school assembly recognizing high school seniors, Chandler presented a poem starting with a description of the challenges students will face in their years at school. It’s an innocuous ode to teenage years at first, describing heartbreak, friendships and bullying.
Then he veers off.
“And to you underclassmen, who have to endure all the things the school will throw at you for two or three more years, a school where the administration closes their eyes to everything that happens in the school,” he said. “The sexual assault, the bullying, the depression, the outcasts, and they do nothing to fix it.”
The audience could be heard gasping in a video of his speech, then bursting into applause.
Chandler hadn’t planned to bring up his accusations against school officials during the speech, he said in an interview with The Columbian. But, he had a friend approach him describing a sexual assault, he said, and he decided to use the assembly as an excuse to speak up.
“I felt like it was a place that I was given power, and I wanted to use it to help bring light to a situation in this school,” he said.
Chandler said that following his speech, he was pulled into a room and told he would not be permitted to walk at Saturday’s graduation ceremony or participate in senior activities.
In an emailed district statement, spokeswoman Gail Spolar said Chandler was given “several options for a restorative resolution,” or else he would not be able to walk at graduation.
“The student made the decision, and informed the administrators that his choice was to not participate in graduation,” she said.
Students speak out
Chandler’s speech and Heritage High School’s decision not to let him walk has prompted an outpouring of support from students. Within hours, Instagram was flooded with a stylized photo of Chandler with the caption #letcharleswalk. Students are also sharing their own stories of sexual assault and bullying that they say school officials have overlooked. They called on the district to allow Chandler to participate in graduation events.
Two girls who attend the school told The Columbian on Wednesday they felt like their concerns were ignored after they reported being sexually assaulted and harassed by a fellow student two years ago.
“It was definitely moving, what (Chandler) said,” one of the girls said. “I don’t think there’s a single person in that room that hasn’t felt that faculty has forgotten them or that they didn’t care.”
Another said she teared up at Chandler’s speech.
“It was a really good moment,” she said. “It felt like everybody was brought together.”
It’s The Columbian’s policy not to name the victims of alleged sexual assault or harassment.
Spolar said it’s the district’s policy to thoroughly investigate allegations of harassment, intimidation or bullying.
“The school and district did investigate these incidents fully and completely immediately after they were reported,” she said. “The statements made during (Wednesday’s) speech are not reflective of what the investigations found.”
Spolar said she could not give additional details due to confidentiality and privacy policies.
What the data shows
Washington law requires that school districts set anti-bullying policies and procedures in place, and take action if students report they are being bullied.
Schools collect data on bullying and harassment in the form of the state Healthy Youth Survey, as well as records on how many students are excluded from campus for reasons including bullying, sexual harassment and assault.
That data has limitations, however. Whether Heritage High School specifically has higher rates of what Chandler described in his speech is impossible to pinpoint with readily available data, though numbers from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provide some context on what students in Clark County and beyond are experiencing.
At Evergreen Public Schools in the 2016-2017 school year, the most recently available data, the 28,325-student school district suspended or expelled 996 students. Of those, 135 were excluded from campus for bullying.
As for sexual harassment or sexually inappropriate conduct, Evergreen Public Schools was in line with state averages. The district suspended or expelled 23 students for sexual harassment in 2016-2017.
The district excluded three students.
According to the state Healthy Youth Survey, 31.4 percent of Washington high school seniors reported they had seen someone pressure someone else into unwanted physical contact, including sex. About 25.2 percent of students reported they’d been forced into unwanted physical contact.
Clark County students reported similar numbers: 29.2 percent of students reported they had witnessed unwanted physical contact and 25.1 percent said they had experienced it. That is countywide data, however. The Healthy Youth Survey does not disaggregate by school district or by individual campus.
Students intend to walk out Friday during lunch to demonstrate their support for Chandler, who said he hopes his speech leads to some systemic changes at the school.
“I’m amazed because the student body is coming together to support and shed more light to this issue that needs to be changed,” he said.