‘It was up to us to make the school safe’: Female Concord students speak out about misconduct 

  • Rising senior Cadence Solsky stands in the Concord High parking lot where she says her car was vandalized several times during the last year. Solsky said she did not feel like her concerns were taken seriously when she brought them to the school’s administrators. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Cadence Solsky at the Concord High parking lot shows one of the places where her car was vandalized just this past week in her driveway. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 8/11/2019 5:00:11 PM

Kate Richards remembers sitting in a classroom at Concord High School watching a video about consent in relationships while her classmates laughed and made jokes.

Howie Leung, a special education teacher in the district Richards had known since middle school, was in the room.

“They didn’t really take it seriously,” Richards told members of the school board who sat through a five-hour-long marathon meeting at Mill Brook School last Monday where more than 30 people spoke to address student safety. This time, more than at past meetings over the summer, current and former students took the microphone.

They had a lot to say and they wanted school leaders to finally listen.

Richards, a 2018 graduate, was a leader of a club at the high school called Feminism Now, where students discussed gender equality issues. They brought education into school about topics like dating violence.

She said she felt like the students were always the ones pushing those conversations at Concord High, and that they even had to fight resistance from the administration to do so.

“I felt like the only change I ever saw was from students,” she said. “It felt like even though we were underage, that it was up to us and not the adults sometimes to make the school safe.”

Richards was one of the final female students to share her personal story with the school board. She stood at the microphone, in front of a sea of blue worn in solidarity by almost 100 people. Some were angry when they spoke, some fought back tears.

One recent alumna said it’s good the school board is spending time revising policies but should have done a better job enforcing the policies it already had on the books prior to Leung’s arrest on sexual assault charges in April. Leung, who worked in the district for almost 13 years, is facing charges of sexually assaulting a former Concord student in and around Rundlett and at the Fessenden Summer ELL Program in Newton, Mass., during the summers of 2015 and 2016.

Another former student said the district harbors a culture of protecting people in power. A current student spoke about the bullying she experienced because of a disability that made her feel her calls for help were not answered by administrators.

“I feel like there is a culture in this school of not believing victims,” said Cadence Solsky, a rising senior who said she was bullied after she had to start parking her car near the senior parking lot as a junior because of a medical condition.

They all talked about the good memories they had in the Concord school system, how they loved the community and the education they received from teachers. They said they want to see Concord schools improve.

When the young women spoke, they received the most applause out of everyone who addressed the board.

It was the last meeting before the start of the school year and the board was reviewing proposed changes to their policies on mandatory reporting, bullying and sexual harassment and discussing training that will happen at the start of the school year.

The district is awaiting the completion of an investigation into school officials’ handling of concerns brought forward by students about Leung in 2014 and 2018. In both instances, female students were reprimanded or teachers in power tried to discredit them.

“Thank you, thank you, everybody,” Concord school board president Jen Patterson said Monday, after members of the public had spoken. “We absolutely understand all of the work we have to do.”

Teaching about important issues

Richards, who now attends Bates College, said the Feminism Now club at the high school felt like a safe haven where students got to talk about issues that weren’t openly addressed, like sexual pressure, forming healthier relationships and addressing instances of gender bias. She said starting those conversations in the broader school community felt like an uphill battle.

On the topic of sexual consent, some students did not want to take the message seriously. During Granite State Respect Week, a weeklong dating violence and sexual abuse awareness campaign for teenagers put on by the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Richards heard a lot of students making fun of the programming. They had to go through a long process of approval with Concord High administration, including Principal Tom Sica, to introduce similar programs, Richards said.

“While we did what we could, everything had to go through higher up teachers and administration and it felt like we couldn’t always share the voices that needed to be heard and our efforts some times felt futile,” she said.

She wished she could have done more.

“When I walked across the stage at graduation, Mr. Sica thanked me for all I did and I’m sitting here now frustrated that I didn’t do enough for my peers,” she said.

Fellow 2018 graduate Laila Ruffin said administrators don’t seem well versed in a lot of the issues that groups like Feminism Now were trying to promote, or even issues taught in health classes at the high school, like “only yes, means yes.”

Ruffin said she was disheartened when she heard about a lawsuit against district administrators recently filed by a student. The student, who has left the district, accused school officials of failing to make accommodations to ensure her safety after she reported to them that she was sexually assaulted on a school bus in 2017.

The girl, who was a junior at the time, says school administrators took months to investigate her report while she continued to cross paths with the boy who threatened her. The school’s investigation found that the male student did not violate the sexual harassment policy because the victim froze as he groped her instead of saying ‘no’ or asking him to stop, according to court records.

“That’s something we learn in our health classes, ‘Just because there isn’t a verbal no, doesn’t mean that it isn’t wrong,’ ” Ruffin said. “I think that’s something we should fully address because we can’t teach students one thing and act on another. I think it’s important for the schools to reflect the values they teach us in the classrooms.”

‘More awareness’

The scratches on Cadence Solsky’s blue Subaru were so small at first that she didn’t think much of them.

They started appearing in her first few days of parking in the faculty lot at Concord High School last year, across from campus.

But she started to worry after she and her brother would arrive at the car after classes had ended for the day and consistently see little marks in different patterns on her passenger doors.

“They kept popping up every single time I would park there,” she said.

Solsky, a junior, said she received special permission from principal Sica to park there because of her rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

Solsky was diagnosed with the chronic illnesses when she was 12 years old. The arthritis causes her joints to swell up in her body. It also causes fatigue, light sensitivity and pain. She takes medication to lessen the symptoms. 

She said a group of seniors started bullying her because they didn’t think she should be able to park in the faculty lot, which is right next to senior parking, Solsky said. Usually, underclassmen have to park down the street at Memorial Field during the school day. The walk to campus is much farther. It was a strenuous trek on the days she would have flare-ups, Solsky said. 

She said the bullies would call her a freak and threaten to slash her tires. Solsky said she’s had problems with people judging her for needing accommodations at school because she doesn’t “look disabled.”

“It’s something that needs more awareness,” she said. “People do have the tendency to judge a disability by its visibility.”

One day she pulled out of the lot and a few minutes later she was on the side of the road with a flat tire. There was a piece of metal wedged into one of her tires. Solsky said that a worker at the auto shop told her that there was no way the flat tire could have been caused by her running over something. It was likely propped up behind her tire, so she would run over it when she backed up out of her spot, she said.

Solsky and her parents went in to speak to the administration at Concord High several times, but no disciplinary action was taken against any student.

“I do feel like every time I went to administration, they were doing everything they could to protect them and not me,” she said.

She said she’s been inspired by Ana Goble, who said she was suspended by Sica in 2014 for speaking about her concerns about Leung’s behavior with her classmates, to tell her story. She said that story hit close to home.

“I was thinking about talking about it for a long time, but I knew I was in no way the worst case of the victim not being believed, so I wasn’t really sure if I had the place,” she said.

She said she felt a lot of validation after sharing her story at the school board meeting Monday. 

“Every single person that I walked past thanked me for going to talk about it and that was so crazy, because I had such an opposite reaction at Concord High, where I felt shamed for it,” she said.

Moving forward

The Concord school board has spent the summer working with community members to improve its policies around reporting and investigating misconduct. But young people at Monday’s meeting said the real test will be what improvements are made to the district’s culture when school is back in session.

“Reading the policies, I’m kind of surprised that there’s not more backlash just because, we haven’t adhered to the policies that we had in place, and instead, we’ve created more policies and I don’t think that policies are going to be what sparks change,” said 2018 graduate Leeza Richter. 

“Obviously, policies can be a good thing and are taking a step in the right direction, but it’s all talk to a certain degree,” Richter added.

Ruffin said one way to prove that the district is serious about holding people accountable for their actions is to take all complaints seriously, even ones about people who have served in the district a long time.

She said many employees working in the district also went to school here, and she’s felt they hold too much power.

“It sort of creates this notion that, ‘Well, I graduated from here, this is my city, there are going to be things that protect me no matter what I do,’ ” she said. “You can see how this can start to breed this culture of where people feel like they’re irreplaceable. We have people who have been in positions for years and years and know that they are kind of these protected people to the community. I just feel like it’s really important to let people know that, just because you are from here and you’ve lived here your whole life, doesn’t mean that the rules don’t apply to you.”

Sica will remain on paid leave until the conclusion of the district’s investigation. The start of school was delayed a day until Aug. 28 for a day of staff training.

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