Chants filled the air as about 20 local students took to the pavement outside of John Burroughs High School on Wednesday. Carrying strongly worded signs and joined by supporters, they gathered to demand action and accountability from Burbank Unified School District leadership, which they allege has mishandled reports of sexual assaults for years.
“I’m not scared anymore, I’m angry,” said Hannah Sidener, a 19-year-old former Burbank High School student who alleges she was sexually assaulted on campus several years ago. “I’m protesting and speaking up for 14-year-old me, but also for all of the other survivors standing with me,” Sidener told the Leader at this week’s rally, the latest of several demonstrations on the issue in the past few months.
Students are calling for a third-party investigation of the district’s responses to reports of sexual assault against students. In addition, they demanded clarity on the employment status of a JBHS teacher accused in a lawsuit of molesting two male students in alleged incidents nearly 20 years apart. The teacher is currently on leave, the district said; the lawsuit also names the school district.
Superintendent Matt Hill issued a response on that matter in January: “The allegations are subject to investigation and review through internal procedures and court processes, and we can confirm that no new allegations or complaints of this nature about the teacher have been substantiated since the lawsuit was filed. We cannot comment further, as there is litigation pending,” he said in an email to district stakeholders.
Protesters also called for the immediate resignation of John Paramo, the district’s assistant superintendent and Title IX coordinator, who oversees the district’s response to complaints of sexual assault.
The Leader has asked Paramo for comment. He had not responded as of the Leader’s press deadline. However, Hill responded Friday to outreach from the Leader regarding the protests and related demands from the demonstrators.
“On behalf of the Board of Education and the District administration, we encourage everyone to share their concerns directly with district administration and/or the Burbank Police Department so that we can investigate immediately and provide resources. … We collectively share a deep concern for the safety and welfare of all students. The administration takes all reports of sexual misconduct very seriously,” Hill stated in an email to the Leader.
Wednesday’s protest was the third since December. Students, most of whom are girls and women, are sharing their stories and organizing, thanks in large part to social media.
“The goal of the protests is to bring awareness and also bring change. We want to change how they handle these cases and to change the environment. Everyone deserves to be safe at school and to be provided resources that will help ensure that safety,” one student protester, Geneva Gisella, told the Leader.
“I just don’t want to be in a situation where I am hearing one, five, 20 years down the line that these things are still happening,” Gisella said during a BUSD town hall meeting on Thursday.
District leadership has contended that all sexual assault cases are investigated per the requirements of the law and police are looped in when appropriate, but Hill said during a school board meeting on March 17 that the process can come off as “cold.”
“We have to look at the processes that we have in place to make sure they are trauma informed,” Hill said, referring to federal mandates on providing support to individuals reporting sexual assault. “How do we make sure that our process doesn’t feel as cold?”
“It is clear that has to change,” Hill added.
One Burbank-based student and organizer, Anastasia Chaglasian, runs a nonprofit organization called Protect Kids, Not Abusers. She uses Instagram to share news, organize free-speech events, and drive petition signatures on youth-centric topics regarding public health and student safety with a focus on sexual violence advocacy.
Chaglasian works to write legislation alongside Youth Power Project, a program that is led by young people and engages peers in local grassroots organizing and policy work. Through that organization, Chaglasian played a part in writing Senate Bill 558, which was introduced to the state Senate on March 15, and if passed, would create additional rules to empower victims of child sexual abuse material.
“I find stories of injustice — my own or other people’s experiences — and I find how I can fix those injustices within the law. So I’ll find the exact penal code that is this barrier for a lot of students to accessing justice, and I’ll rewrite the legislation,” Chaglasian told the Leader.
Chaglasian learned about students’ complaints regarding JBHS and BUSD through social media, and has since joined with students at the school to organize demands for the district, to speak out at meetings and to form protest events.
“I think a majority of the people who protested [Wednesday] just want a better future for the future generation that are going to be going to these high schools in Burbank,” she said.
It all started in August when one Burroughs student, a minor who reported that she was sexually assaulted off campus by another student, decided to speak up about the alleged incident.
The student told the Leader that she reported her case to a school administrator with the intent of switching classes to avoid her alleged abuser. According to the student, the administrator assured her that she would be contacted by the campus school resource officer, but after three months passed, she still had not heard anything.
Title IX — a federal law that protects students, including victims of sexual assault, from gender-based discrimination — requires that the school’s compliance officer investigate and compile a comprehensive report of the facts surrounding the case within 60 days of receiving it.
“[The administrator] said that she didn’t remember my report, and that really hurt. I thought she was someone who really cared about my feelings, but I realized she was acting sympathetic to get me out of her office. That became clear to me,” she said.
After months of waiting for the administration to take action to protect her, the student said she felt hopeless. She developed a nicotine addiction and told the Leader that she lost a lot of weight due to the stress of the alleged incident and the ensuing inaction.
“A lot of other girls experience the same things. After sexual assault, many girls are prone to addiction and self-harm,” she said.
The Burroughs student felt she had no other option but to raise awareness about the school’s alleged inaction in her case. She organized with fellow students to protest and posted a video on TikTok sharing her story. It went viral, drawing the attention of parents and teachers in Burbank.
Following the protests, the student said that she received contact from district staff regarding an investigation into her case.
“I am so proud of the protesting students. BUSD failed to properly document, record or follow up when my daughter reported feeling unsafe. No one reached out to us until students organized and did a TikTok that went viral. Then, there was zero communication with us about their ‘internal’ investigation,” her mother said.
“Because of the protest and the kids who have bravely come forward at the meetings, the transgressions and lack of accountability may finally see the light of day. Because of them there will be an audit,” her mother added.
At a March 17 meeting, about a dozen students addressed the BUSD Board of Education, giving chilling testimony about their experiences with alleged sexual assault on and off campus. In response, board President Steve Ferguson called during the meeting for an “audit of all sexual assault cases from the last three years.”
On Thursday, Hill specified during a town hall meeting that district staff will return to the board before the end of June with audit data on sexual assault cases and documentation of the district’s response.
“We are reviewing our student information system to identify all cases and then will be reviewing those cases to make sure the proper process was followed and to make sure students received support,” Hill told the Leader in a recent email.
First published in the April 1 print issue of the Burbank Leader.