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An eruption of social media comment over the holidays regarding student-on-student sexual harassment allegations at Brook Haven Middle School is prompting officials at the Sebastopol school district to focus a Jan. 23 parent education meeting on the controversial topic.

Shortly before Christmas, the father of a teenage girl at the middle school created a topic on titled “Sexual Abuse Epidemic at Brook Haven School” that alleged his daughter was groped by a boy who was part of a “gang” of three or four others who have engaged in similar conduct with several different girls since September. The father claimed the school district failed to take appropriate action in response to a September incident involving one of the boys, thus creating an atmosphere in which his own daughter was later groped by one of the same group of boys.

“(I) saw that the school did basically nothing about the incident at the beginning of the year,” the father said in his post that invited discussion on the topic. “So this triggers a feeling of fear and hopelessness among the young women at Brook Haven.”

In keeping with policies of the Sonoma West Times and News, the family of the alleged victim of sexual harassment is not being identified, although the pervasiveness of social media comment makes it difficult to maintain confidentiality.

Over the holidays, dozens of people posted comments about the topic, with some adding additional allegations of incidents at the school that were not reported or allegedly occurred elsewhere.

 Some people commenting on the controversy suggested reporting the incidents to police and prosecutors and some proposed using restorative justice counseling to treat the boys. Others encouraged restraining orders against the boys and several called for the boys to be kicked out of school.

One wrote: “Slap these creeps in the face or squirt them in the face with mace… They belong in a cage. Act like a wild animal, be treated like one until trained and tamed.”

At one point in the ongoing debate, the father of the girl did acknowledge that the school district did take some measures that included prohibiting the boys from talking to his daughter, having them sit in the front of class when attending the same class, banning them from recess and ordering them to leave campus immediately after the school day ended.

Although the school district was closed until classes resumed Jan. 8, the superintendent of the Sebastopol Union School District issued a lengthy statement to parents on Jan. 5 that sought to refute comments that had piled up on the social media site that is subscribed to primarily by west county residents.

“Anonymous statements of opinion or uncorroborated fact reported to authorities or posted via the internet do not advance a responsible results oriented discussion of this situation,” said Superintendent Linda Irving. “There is no ‘epidemic’ of sexual harassment in our schools and the district has not turned a blind eye or a deaf ear to misbehavior.”

Irving said privacy rights “of all students involved” prevented her from detailing the actions that the district administration took in response to the allegations. However, she said the middle school in early December conducted a seminar for seventh and eighth graders on the topic of sexual harassment. And she said an already scheduled Jan. 23 parent education night would likely focus on this topic.

“To assert that the district has ignored this national issue is unfair and simply not true,” Irving wrote in a 2-page letter to parents. “In fact, the current allegations against some boys at the school were a direct result of this awareness building effort by school leaders.”

The national advocacy group Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, which recently launched the #MeTooK12 campaign, has weighed in to the discussion, encouraging parents to listen to experts in the field and the district to require counseling services for all those involved.

“It's true that by moving them to another school you simply pass the problem along, but by ejecting them you send a strong message that this behavior is not to be tolerated at your school,” wrote Esther Warkov, a co-founder of the Stop Sexual Assault in Schools organization based in Portland, OR. “It's your school's responsibility and the next school's responsibility to correct the behavior and send the same strong message.”

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