BY JOIA PUTNOI
Community News Service
Some 100 people gathered at the baseball diamond of Champlain Valley Union High School on June 6 to stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault.
It was CVU’s first-ever “Take Back the Night” event. The vision for the gathering was that of Chloe Silverman, a CVU junior who’s dedication to sexual assault awareness, she said, inpsired her to bring the movement to the CVU community.
“I am furious that our own bodies have become political, from a local to a federal level,” said S i l v e r m a n , when addressing the field of attendees.
Among the crowd were administrators, students, faculty and CVU alumni. The night consisted of a march, keynote speaker, an open mic for survivors, as well as a candlelight vigil to acknowledge victims of sexual assault.
Students held a handpainted banner reading “Take Back the Night,” a slogan originating from the Take Back the Night organization founded by Katie Koestner in the 1970s to combat sexual violence. Koestner helped Silverman when organizing CVU’s event by shipping her Take Back the Night T-shirts to be worn by the student organizers.
The organization has a global reach, sparking movements across all continents. Take Back The Night has helped women organize against sexual violence for five decades, with many of its major protests occurring on college campuses.
For the past five years, the initiative to create a climate of openness around sexual health at CVU has rested upon its students. Clubs such as Student Awareness Curriculum & Training (ACT) and the Student Justice Alliance have been working in tandem to foster a culture of safety at the high school.
Student ACT was co-founded by Chiara Antonioli and Walter Braun in 2017 in an effort to improve the sexual education curriculum at CVU. As a leader against sexual violence in her community, Antonioli was called back to be the keynote speaker at the June 6 event.
“When I was asked to speak here tonight, I was asked to give a battle cry,” said Antonioli at the conclusion of her speech. “So here it is: Take back your body, take back your life, take back your night.”
Silverman’s goal to raise awareness around sexual violence coincided with a campaign that was being launched by the Student ACT club. The campaign amended the school’s sexual assault reporting process by making it more respectful to survivors.
According to student and “Take Back the Night” organizer Eva Frazier, the revamping of CVU’s reporting process has been in motion since January. She remarked that the school has seen a large increase in reporting since those changes were made.
After hearing about this campaign, Silverman became interested in holding an event centered around supporting survivors in her community. In collaboration with her friends and classmates, “Take Back The Night” began to be pieced together.
“I needed there to be an event to unleash this rage,” said Silverman when asked what sparked her motivation.
“My most important focus,” said Silverman, “is to empower survivors and allies and show that we are here and we are not giving up.”
“This is not a one school scenario,” she continued. “People may think that living in Vermont, it’s different here, that the administration is going to listen to you and be super respectful and caring towards your time, and then you are just kind of hit with the awful realization that it is no different here.”
CVU principal Adam Bunting said he is working closely with his community to ensure that the school is a safe place for survivors.
“The students have really helped us address some of those, you know, I’d say blind spots,” Bunting said. “For example, how much courage it takes to go forward and speak up. And even some of the challenges that are like, ‘well, who do I go to to feel safe with?’”
The school put up posters with scannable QR codes, which goes right to the harassment, hazing and bullying form that is seen immediately by an administrator, Bunting said.
The school now offers advocates for students going through the reporting process, Bunting said, as well as adding two diversity, equity and inclusion coaches to the school’s faculty.
Bunting said he recognizes that these changes are often incited by students.
“One of the things that I’ve really heard clearly from my students is that they don’t want to be in a position of always pushing the school to be doing this. If it’s truly a partnership, then where is the adult leadership from this all the time?” said Bunting.
CVU recently received the funding to hire a justice, equity, diversity and inclusion coordinator for the 2021-2022 academic year. The position will also serve as a Title IX coordinator, as well as an advocate for students going through the reporting process.
Silverman reflects on the difficulty of reaching her CVU community beyond her circle of female allies.
“I wanted to reach outside the Social Justice Alliance,” she said. “They know the importance of this topic.”
Silverman is planning on making this an annual event, and will continue to brainstorm ways to diversify the turnout.
Bunting agreed, and said the school is also working on diversifying turnout.
“One of our goals next year is increasing the number of those who identify as male in our social justice groups. I think that needs to start with modeling,” said Bunting. “So I actually have a meeting next week with the head of our social justice alliance and the two of us are going to be talking about ways in which we can create some pull energy to get more of our males involved in this discussion.”
“I just hope,” Bunting added, “our students know that the leaders in this building are with them in this.”
The Community News Service is a partnership between the University of Vermont’s Reporting & Documentary Storytelling program and Vermont community newspapers.