Homeowners may hate them, however property taxes aren’t going anywhere … but up

Note: I collected and analyzed information from 60 different school districts in four counties, and attended three school board meetings, which allowed me to see local government in action. It took me three weeks to report and write the story, but the end result was worth it. The article garnered over 13,000 page views and nearly 50 comments on, all about taxes.

Michael Lee, a retiree living on a fixed income in a two-story house that Delaware County estimates is worth $125,000, pays over $3,100 in annual property taxes — three-quarters of that to the Springfield School District.

“It’s getting tougher each month to pay that,” said Lee, 65, who formerly worked for the U.S. Postal Service. And it just got a little tougher. The district has upped his bill by $75 after approving a 2.4 percent property-tax increase two weeks ago.

Pennsylvania’s modest $100 million school-funding increase in the 2018-19 budget was hardly sufficient to stave off another round of school-tax increases that are now greeting taxpayers from Chester County horse country to the river towns along the Delaware and the Route 422 corridor.

The Coatesville Area School District raised taxes by the most of all the school districts surveyed, 5.27 percent. While hefty, the tax hike is a 3.17 percent decrease from a proposed final budget that generated blowback from the community.

School officials in the counties blame a perennial matrix of issues, including pensions, contractual and special-education costs, and assorted state and federal mandates for the fact that more than 50 school districts have levied higher tax rates by an average of $100 effective July 1 — and an average of $100 annually for the last 10 years.

Among the districts that won’t be raising school taxes this time around, however, is the biggest one in the state – Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney had proposed a 4.1 percent increase, but that ran into resistance from City Council.

For Lee, who’s lived in Morton for 13 years, tax hikes don’t come as a shock anymore. “It happens on a regular basis,” Lee said. ” I’m really not surprised that the [rate] is going up.”

“Sometimes, people think we’re just raising taxes,” Springfield School Board President Jennifer Lofland said at the budget hearing late last month. “But we’re having to make cuts along the way.”

To hundreds of thousands of property owners, however, tax hikes have become as unwelcome as they are predictable. While a decade-long campaign to reduce or eliminate property taxes gained new life after a constitutional amendment passed in November that allows Pennsylvania to exempt owner-occupied homes from real estate levies, for now the property tax isn’t likely to go anywhere but up.

In the last decade, school property taxes in the 60-plus districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have jumped 25 percent — in some cases better than 40 percent — outpacing inflation at a time when enrollments have been stagnant.

The percentage of property-tax bills that go toward school bills is significantly higher than it is in the nearby New Jersey counties. Some districts in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties saw robust aid increases in Gov. Murphy’s first budget.

But districts in Philadelphia’s collar counties long have complained about what they view as inadequate support from Harrisburg, the subject of a landmark school funding lawsuit filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education by a group of parents, organizations, and school districts, including William Penn, in 2014.

Outgoing Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dan Nerelli warned last month that his district would go “bankrupt” in two years if it didn’t receive significantly more state aid.

Upper Darby has one of the region’s highest tax rates, and it just went up 2.5 percent, adding $68 for a total of $2,785 for the typical homeowner — but resident Phyllis Fields isn’t blaming the district.

“The bathrooms are a mess. The faucets are falling off,” she said at a public meeting last month. She said she wouldn’t want to send her child to such a school, “but I live here, and I know that in order to fight this, we have to keep our schools up. We have to keep fighting Harrisburg.”

A spokesman for Gov. Wolf said the governor “remains committed to achieving fair and adequate funding for education in Pennsylvania.”

The elite Main Line districts have not been immune. Levies have spiked upward in the Lower Merion Area, Radnor Township, and Tredyffrin/Easttown School Districts.

In Lower Merion in the last decade, taxes have jumped 45 percent, increasing the typical homeowner’s tax bill from $4,471 to $6,612. The district’s taxes are the subject of a pending suit filed by a group of residents led by lawyer Arthur Wolk.

Lower Merion cites a big bump in enrollment as a reason for the hikes; the student population has swelled more than 20 percent in that period.

However, some districts that have watched enrollment decline have also been raising taxes. The Upper Dublin School District in Montgomery County, where enrollment has fallen 4 percent, has raised taxes 47.9 percent in the last 10 years.

Business administrator Brenda Jones Bray said the increases have been due in large part to the construction of a new high school, which was approved by voters, and increasing pension and salary costs.

The Centennial School District, which has raised levies 46.2 percent in the last 10 years, also identified pensions as a chief culprit. Annual pension costs have increased from $2.5 million to $19 million, said Centennial chief financial officer Christopher Berdnik.

He said the district used its increased revenue to fund several capital projects, including renovating the high school. Residents have supported the increases, according to Berdnik.

“I live in the community that I work in. I go to the grocery store and people ask me about the school district’s budget,” Berdnik said. “I am not embarrassed to say why the increases exist.”

While reviling property taxes is a longstanding Pennsylvania tradition, some property owners are accepting the increases with equanimity.

In the Bensalem School District, for example, many residents embraced the 2.4 percent tax hike, noting that the district hadn’t raised taxes for two years.

“This should have started happening a few years ago,” said Bensalem elementary school teacher Justin Ellis. “It’s about the kids, and what’s best for the kids.”

Fields, the Upper Darby resident, said she will continue to press her district’s case to Harrisburg.

“You have to make people understand. We’re not going to sit back and put up with this. We have to elect people that hear us,” Fields said. “That’s an important thing. Sometimes, they don’t hear us. And when they don’t hear us year after year, then maybe they’re not the best person to represent us.”

(Published in the July 11, 2018 print edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer and online)

Philadelphia’s junkyards are a dumpster fire

Note: I pitched this investigation after writing a series of articles about one particular problematic junkyard. During an interview for one of those stories, my source said “you know, it’s not just this junkyard that’s the problem.” That prompted me to dig deeper into the issue, and I found that all but four of the 40-plus junkyards had racked up several violations.

Billows of dense, black smoke clogged the humid air, filling it with the stench of burning plastic, papers, scrap metals.

The spectacular fire at the Kensington junkyard, where the city says debris was stacked nearly as high as a three-story house, burned out of control for three hours.

Then, within days of the July 10 fire, the junkyard, Philadelphia Metal and Resource Recovery, reopened.

Jamie Moffett, who works in the neighborhood, where he used to live, was outraged.

But, he was also grateful.

For the fire had brought attention to a neighborhood nuisance. The city moved swiftly to close it. And when the junkyard’s owner, David Feinberg, went to court last week to appeal the city’s decision, a judge ordered the junkyard to remain closed until it fixes its violations.

The blaze, while unfortunate, rekindled interest in a citywide issue. Philadelphia is abundant in magnificent buildings and spacious parks. But, it is also abundant in junkyards.

More than 40 are active and permitted, according to the city. Most of them are clustered in the lower Northeast, Southwest, and North Philadelphia; some located in residential neighborhoods and near playgrounds. All but four of them have been cited for violations, according to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, including one in the 4000 block of Richmond Street that has racked up 128 of them.

L&I Commissioner David Perri said most junkyards with violations voluntarily come into compliance. Some, however, don’t.

In addition, any number of rogue facilities are operating around the city.

The city often lacks the resources to enforce codes crafted to protect the community and the environment, and to monitor what materials junkyards accept and how they are stored. L&I says that in the last 10 years it has ordered the closings of  “10 to 15” junkyards — but isn’t sure of the exact number.

Junkyards do serve valuable purposes, said Perri and the Clean Air Council’s Russell Zerbo. They provide jobs and offer a form of recycling and alternatives to the illegal dumping of unwanted materials. But in some cases, according to a City Planning Commission report published earlier this year, they have become problematic for the neighborhoods in which they are located, often inhabited by “vulnerable populations.”

“When scrap yards choose to be bad neighbors, they endanger the community’s health and safety and can even encourage and contribute to criminal activity,” Perri said.

Contaminants can foul the air, and improperly stored materials — batteries, gasoline, brake fluid  — can leach into groundwater supplies, according to the report. Neighbors complain about increased traffic and noise, and junkyards often compete with “cleaner” businesses that the city would like to attract. In addition, illegal dumping often occurs near junkyards, the report said.

And evidently, they can be magnets for metal thieves. The Philadelphia region ranked second in the nation, behind New York, for the most stolen-metal insurance claims from 2014 to 2016, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which said junkyards are popular destinations for such contraband.

One enforcement obstacle is defining just what constitutes a junkyard. The city defines a junkyard as “a business that operates an area for storing wrecked or salvaged vehicles and parts.

The Kensington junkyard, located at Tulip and Somerset Streets, is a case study in regulatory challenges.

L&I has issued 71 violations against the junkyard over the last 10 years, according to public records.

Just days before the fire, however, it had been allowed to operate.

Members of the city’s Scrap Yard Task Force, created in 2003, visited the yard in April 2017, said task force member Maria Horowitz. It “didn’t hit our list of a bad actor,” she said. “We didn’t particularly find any egregious violations. Nothing imminently dangerous.”

Obviously, however, 15 months after the inspection, the yard wasn’t fireproof.

Maintaining a current and thorough catalog of violations is all but impossible, said Ali Kenner, a Drexel University professor, who in 2015 conducted her own study of junkyard violations.

“Even as we were reporting violations, new problems would pop up a week later,” Kenner said. “The [city’s] regulatory mechanisms are inadequate to deal with the problems.”

The Scrap Yard Task Force inspects four junkyards each month, according to coordinator Jim D’Agostino. Moffett said he had no idea the city had such a task force. “They’re certainly not doing their job,” he said.

Operating under the auspices of the Water Department, the group includes representatives from L&I, Fire and Police Departments, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Andrew Goodman, of the New Kensington Community Development Corporation, says he is sympathetic to the city’s enforcement issues.

“Certainly, this is one example of many where cities don’t have the resources,” he said.

Martine DeCamp, who wrote the Planning Commission report in an effort “to get everyone on the same page,” offered several recommendations, including tightening permit requirements and giving junkyard owners incentives for modernizing and beautifying their properties.

D’Agostino said he has seen some improvements. Each year, he said, city officials are “finding that more and more people are doing things more and more correctly.”

But frustrations persist, said the New Kensington group’s Goodman. For one thing, he said, it’s not clear to whom grievances should be addressed.

Drexel’s Kenner, who praised DeCamp’s report, said Philadelphia needs to keep junkyards on its radar.

“I really do think that the city needs to lead the way on this issue,” Kenner said. “If no one is putting eyes on the problem, it’s not going to get the attention it needs.”

(Published in the Aug. 7, 2018 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer and online)

Teachers in high demand, but Davis salaries continue to lag

Note: This 3,000 word story is a result of the question: Why doesn’t my math teacher have a teaching credential? After asking the question, I spent four months with another student journalist interviewing teachers and district employees, researching other schools’ teacher compensation and gaining a basic understanding of district-provided health care benefits.

Last year, Angela Chu was a promising student-teacher in Davis High School’s math department, teaching three classes for James Johnson and Dan Gonzales. Johnson, head of the math department, thought the 29-year-old was a prime candidate for a full-time position.

“She was an excellent student-teacher and I was begging her to apply here,” Johnson said. “And she said, ‘No way am I going to apply here. Why would I come to Davis when I could make $8,000 a year more in Elk Grove to start with, and they have all these better benefits?’ ”

Chu, now a full-time teacher at Katherine L. Albiani Middle School in the Elk Grove Unified School District, said the idea of teaching in Davis “didn’t even cross (my) mind.”

“A big influence was the pay and what the district was giving,” Chu explained. “Because as a first-year teacher, we’re on the low end of the pay scale, and there was a drastic difference between some districts over others.”

Chu is not alone in her decision — for years, the Davis school district has lagged behind other districts in salary offerings, which has contributed to a teacher shortage in Davis.

DJUSD health care benefits, though top-notch, take a big bite out of monthly paychecks — another deterrent to teachers looking for higher pay.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, health care plans are ranked as bronze, silver, gold and platinum based on annuity values.

“Almost all of our plans are either gold or platinum,” Associate Superintendent Matthew Best explained. “Coverage is really good, co-pays are really low. The premiums are higher. And we have a ton of options.”

Additionally, Best said the Davis district offers $172 per month in “in lieu” payments: If a teacher does not take benefits from the district — for example, if a spouse’s job provides health care for the family — they receive money from the district.

So what’s the catch? Coverage is expensive.

“People can’t believe how much I have to pay for health insurance for my family,” said Johnson, who said his benefits cost more than 15 percent of his gross monthly income under his plan.

That’s $12,710 per year for family coverage — a whopping 32.75 percent of the salary of a first-year DJUSD teacher with a bachelor’s degree ($38,811, as of July 1).

The highest possible salary — a 25-year teacher with a master’s degree and 30 credits or a bachelor’s degree and 90 credits — is $86,253.

Day-care costs

Johnson recalled that several years ago, he tried to convince one of his teacher colleagues to move to Davis. She told him that day-care costs for her children would outpace her salary as a Davis teacher.

According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies, day care in the United States costs an average of $11,666 per year.

Davis-based child-care offerings appear to match that figure but can go even higher. At Tender Learning Care, one child costs $995 per month, and at Galyna’s Child Care it’s $1,000. But at Double Decker Day School, preschool costs $3,700 per month. (See correction below.)

For a rookie teacher with one or more young children, $38,811 per year would not be enough money to justify the move.

Contrast the DJUSD starting salary with Elk Grove’s $43,546 for first-year teachers and $90,983 max — which takes only 19 years to reach — and it’s not hard to see why Chu and others have left the district, contributing to an ongoing teacher shortage.

The shortage is not unique to Davis; Best said it began during the 2008 recession, when few teaching jobs existed and potential teachers chose not to enter the profession. Best said teacher credential programs saw enrollment plunge by 70 percent in five years.

Additionally, teachers who would have retired during the recession held off as their salary shrunk, leading to a “big slew” of retirements in the improved economy, Best said.

“So now … the economy’s recovered,” he said. “People are hiring and people are retiring. So the supply is really low and the demand is really high. Everybody is trying to fight for a really small group of people. And one of our challenges is how do you do that.”

State funding

Davis’ fight for teachers was made more difficult in 2013, when California implemented a new policy called the Local Control Funding Formula, aimed at increasing aid to school districts with a high percentage of “unduplicated” students — English learners, foster youths and students on free or reduced-price lunch plans based on modest family incomes.

This method of fund distribution gives districts with a high percentage of unduplicated students much-needed aid.

But, according to the California Department of Education, districts like Woodland and Sacramento City have much higher percentages of unduplicated students (71.29 and 71.41 percent, respectively) than Davis (27.08).

Because of its small percentage of these students, Davis receives less money from the state than it did before the LCFF was implemented.

“So you got the double whammy,” Best said. “You’re not receiving state funding (and) your regional competitors are funded differently.”

And some competitors, like St. Helena Unified in Napa County, are basic-aid districts, meaning their teacher salaries are buoyed by high property taxes.

Making competition for teachers even more difficult for DJUSD employers are high Davis housing prices, which provide another incentive for teachers to move to nearby cities like Woodland or Sacramento.

Because of these factors, it is difficult to compare DJUSD salaries with those of rivals like Elk Grove and Sacramento, which have far greater enrollments and percentages of unduplicated students.

Best said the only regional competitor within 100 miles of DJUSD that is comparable in size and unduplicated students is Rocklin Unified (21.24 percent unduplicated).

So how does DJUSD stack up against Rocklin?

The starting salary for a Class I teacher (bachelor’s degree) in Rocklin is $45,253 — about $7,000 more than Davis pays.

Best emphasized that DJUSD is doing everything it can to attract new teachers and negotiate increases to the salary schedules.

DJUSD Superintendent John Bowes says the district is “committed to providing a highly qualified team of employees in Davis.”

“This fall we will be soliciting community member participation to assist in creating an action plan to implement a new part of our DJUSD strategic plan focused on recruiting, supporting, evaluating, retaining and advancing a team of talented and dedicated DJUSD professionals,” the superintendent added.

According to Wendy Lewis, a human resources administrative assistant, the Davis district recently increased the number of years of experience that teachers can transfer from other districts when they start work in Davis from 10 to 20, enabling veteran teachers to avoid a huge salary drop when they come to DJUSD.

And in 2014, the district and the Davis Teachers Association agreed on a 2-percent salary increase for each of the next two years, and added a 25th salary step for longtime teachers.

But Best said other districts are taking similar measures.

“(DJUSD salaries are) going to continue to drop proportionally because you’re seeing other districts around us doing 6- or 7-percent (increases) on the salary schedule deals whereas we’re doing 2,” he said.

Still, Best said that in his experience, “most people don’t leave as a result of salary. That happens occasionally I would say, but they’re usually going closer to home. So like, I live in Elk Grove and I got a job and I’m making more money.”

‘Brutal decision’

But Joe Nomellini, a former DHS counselor now working full-time at Modesto Junior College, said he loved his high school position; his departure ultimately came down to finances.

“It was a brutal decision for me,” Nomellini said. “The annual salary, retirement opportunities and benefits package drove my decision. While I enjoy my work at Modesto Junior College, I miss DSHS and the students I served.

“I tell my friends and former colleagues that if DJUSD could have come close to matching what I receive at MJC … I probably would have stayed at DSHS. For me, it would have been worth the commute.”

Best and others have also cited the Davis environment as a draw to teachers seeking eager students and more leeway.

“In Davis, we traditionally have less discipline and more freedom in the classroom and a variety of classes that are interesting to teachers,” Best said.

Johnson noted, however, that a better teaching atmosphere doesn’t pay the bills.

“I do think that there’s a perception in our community that it’s a great privilege to work with Davis kids,” Johnson said. “And I love teaching Davis kids. But teachers are looking to get paid.”

And Chu said her new school in Elk Grove is very similar to Davis … with a key distinction.

“I found a school that’s similar to a Davis environment with parents that are really involved and the kids are really eager to learn and they want to do well — but with higher pay,” she said.

In fact, Chu said, the Davis environment, with the academic pressure and the high expectations on which the community prides itself, actually was a deterrent for her.

“It was kind of intimidating with the students and the type of parents that live in Davis and the reputation they have,” she said. “They call them helicopter parents. (For) first-year teachers, Davis is very intimidating. Maybe somebody with more experience would want to work at Davis, but first-year teachers, we’d want a little more under our belt with parent and teacher interaction before we go to something like that.”

Math challenges

Whatever the reason, DJUSD struggles to attract teachers, which has created the current shortage. The shortage, in turn, affects day-to-day activities, especially in the math department.

At first, Johnson thought the solution was to interview and hire teachers earlier in the year. In 2015, DJUSD started interviews for five math openings in March or April, and hired three teachers before the end of the 2014-15 school year.

One left over the summer to take a Woodland job, so Davis hired two more right before the school year started.

“And so, assignments got all messed up and teachers don’t know what they’re teaching till the week before,” Johnson said. “My assignment changed literally the day students came to pick up their schedules.”

One of those new hires was Cal Poly San Luis Obispo graduate Derik Birdsall. The math major was hired at the last minute in July 2015 despite lacking a teaching credential.

Birdsall, who has a master’s degree, taught five classes during the 2015-16 school year. But that isn’t enough money to support his wife and newborn son, so he also teaches night classes at American River College.

He attributes the shortage of math teachers to the wide range of opportunities available to college graduates with math degrees.

“If you have a degree in science or mathematics, you can find a job in industry that pays a much better salary for what is often considered better working conditions,” Birdsall said.

To cover the one vacancy, five teachers had to teach 120 percent, or six classes, in the 2015-16 school year. In 2014-15, eight teachers had to add a class to their workload.

“I’m not 120 percent this year (2015-16) — I refused to do it,” Johnson said. “Last year … I was exhausted, all year long. So yeah sure, that has an effect on students. … I was worn-out. Because, you know, you want to do a good job, and all I did was work. I was up late; I didn’t sleep enough.”

Johnson thinks that potential math teachers, who have better-paying career options, would need to be paid some sort of bonus to be attracted to the profession.

“Which is a problem, because now you’ve got union issues,” he said. “So I understand people not liking that. But I taught in Finland for a year, and they have different gains for different disciplines. So, for example, math teachers do get paid more.”

Counselors affected

The DHS counseling department is also affected by the shortage. Although head counselor Courtenay Tessler said the department has not experienced too much turnover, counselors like Nomellini do leave from time to time for better-paying locations, and the department is currently overworked and understaffed.

“The National Counseling Organization says that we shouldn’t have more than 250 students on a caseload,” Tessler said. “Here, we have 350. So if we had seven counselors, we’d be able to bring it down to about 280.”

DHS currently has five full-time counselors and one who works part-time, and has felt the impact.

“We’ve certainly in the past five years had a significant (yearly) increase in mental health issues,” Tessler said. “So what happens is the counselors are pushed to deal with whatever these issues are and then they’re not serving all of the students. And that’s really, I think, tragic.”

Tessler thinks the district has strayed somewhat from “your foundation and your basics” — which she believes is having enough vice principals and counselors — in its attempt to address issues like the achievement gap.

“You know, if you don’t cover your bases, then you can’t sit there and say, ‘We want to close the achievement gap and we want all these things,’ ” she said. “So people are feeling real stretched.”

Tessler suggested the district could downsize slightly by removing some classes, like ornamental horticulture and LEAD, a leadership class, with low enrollment (the two classes had nine and 10 students, respectively, in 2015-16).

“If classes are low-enrolled — if there’s only eight or nine kids that are signed up for them — then we shouldn’t offer them,” she said.


So how do teachers and counselors voice their opinions?

The Davis Teachers Association and DJUSD negotiate compensation through a process called interest-based bargaining. Best explained the reasoning behind the yearlong process.

“The idea behind it is you share your interests and we share our interests and we try to find the common ground,” he said. “It’s a little nicer (than positional bargaining) and based on the philosophy, there’s quite a bit of research around that if we both concede a little bit, we’re both gonna be better off if we stick together.”

Last year’s DTA president, Frank Thomsen, has been on the teacher side of negotiations in the past and is a strong advocate for increased teacher pay.

“As a representative of the teachers, I’m always going to say that should be your priority, and I think with some justice on the side. I mean, who do (students) spend (their) days with?” Thomsen said. “It’s the teachers, and since we entrust the kids to the teachers, I think the priority when it comes to these things should be put with these people, too.”

One possible way of increasing teacher pay is Davis’ parcel tax, which accounts for 12 percent (roughly $9.5 million) of DJUSD’s annual budget, according to the district’s parcel tax oversight committee. Most of that money is allocated to district personnel and teachers.

But because DJUSD receives less funding under the state formula due to its low percentage of unduplicated students, the district remains only averagely funded even with the parcel tax.

In the spring, school board members  were considering an increase to the tax, which would have added millions of dollars to the district budget and potentially benefited teachers. But they concluded that a higher tax could fail to achieve the two-thirds majority required to pass in November.

So the board settled on a $620-per-parcel tax that maintains the current level of funding, with an eight-year duration.

Although he hopes for further salary increases, Thomsen said he is concerned about basing teacher salaries on a funding source that can expire.

If the tax did expire, Thomsen said, “either you have to take money out of the general fund to keep the position going, fund a new parcel tax that includes it, or you have to cut the program and lay the person off,” he said. “So that person is always a temporary employee.”

A favorable choice?

Thomsen offered another way for teachers to make more money: favorability, which Best described as the “overall positive budget variance from one year to the next.”

Thomsen said the Davis district tends to budget conservatively, and often ends up with about $1 million left over. Best said the positive variance is generally about $500,000.

“We are currently in negotiations with our associations to create a formula to bargain that positive variance in a structured way,” Best said. “The formula philosophy is fairly progressive in California and we are hopeful that we’ll come to agreement in the fall.”

Although the favorability is not an ongoing sum of money and therefore cannot be added to yearly salaries directly, Thomsen believes there should be a way to get it to the teachers.

“At some point, if that money didn’t get spent … then by all means that ought to go to the general fund, of which teachers alone make up about 60 percent,” Thomsen said. He likened the situation to people who paid too much in taxes getting a refund from the government.

Thomsen recalled a year when teachers took a 2.7-percent pay cut (about $700,000 total), and the favorability for the year was about $700,000.

“So you can imagine the psychological effect,” he said. “You can explain the budgeting any way you want. But when you tell people, ‘We have no money for your salary,’ and every year there’s money that didn’t get spent, people start asking, ‘Well, wait a minute.’ ”

The following correction was published Wednesday, Aug. 31: Last Wednesday’s story about Davis teacher salaries included some incorrect information about Double Decker Day School. The monthly tuition quoted for the preschool was erroneously inflated, and the day school closed about 18 months ago. A child-care program continues there. We regret the errors.

(Published in the Aug. 24, 2016 edition of The Davis Enterprise and online)

Sexual assault survivors at DHS speak up

Note: This story was especially compelling because most of the students we interviewed allowed us to use their full names. Doing so gave the story more credibility and put faces to our peers who had been victims of sexual assault. 

Senior Caitlyn Miller was invited to a friend’s house party in the weeks before her senior year began. She arrived late from lifeguarding to find the party in full swing.

After drinking too much too fast to catch up to everyone else, she passed out on the L-shaped coach for the night. Miller slept on one leg of the couch, and a DHS student she barely knew laid on the opposite corner, she said.

“It was probably the most drunk I’ve ever been in my life, and I didn’t think I could get a ride home […] so I decided to sleep on this friend’s couch. And I definitely felt safe there. I didn’t think twice that anything would happen,” Miller said.

“The next thing I remember, I woke up. I was on my back, and he was on top of me. He started to take off my clothes but I wasn’t really aware of what was happening,” Miller said. “He was touching me, he was making me touch him, he was trying to kiss me […] I remember trying to struggle but I was still really drunk and tired, so I remember it wasn’t much use.”

Miller recalled a voice yelling something and the boy briefly getting off her body. When she woke up again, however, he was back on top. Her next memory was offering him a washcloth in the morning.

Miller’s recollection of the sexual assault renamed a blur until a few days later when she started to put the pieces together.

“I remember finding these bruises on my hips, didn’t realize they were hand shaped until later. I just thought I must have walked into the counter or something. I didn’t really think anything of it. And then I started getting nightmares,” she said.

The nightmares grew more intense, and Miller started getting flashes of that night. Once she realized she had been sexually assaulted, her first thought wasn’t anger toward the boy. Instead, Miller was worried she had cheated on the guy she was seeing.

She eventually did tell him, her sister and her parents. Then, on Nov. 10, she publicly shared her experience with other students during a rally held after a school walk-out protesting the election of Donald Trump. She wanted to share the details of that night with The HUB in order to raise awareness about sexual assault.

Do I report my assault?

Miller never reporter her assault to the police, but other students have. In the last five years, 21 students in the Davis Joint Unified School District reported sexual assault to the Davis Police Department, according to School Resource Officer Keith Briesenick.

However, more than two-thirds of sexual assaults went unreported to law enforcement during 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice stated in the results of their biannual National Crime Victimization Survey.

“I knew that because there was no actual intercourse, it would be impossible to prove what actually happened if I went to the police so I figured it wasn’t worth [it],” Miller said.

Briesenick doesn’t discourage people from reporting sexual assault, however, she admits intent can be difficult to prove.

Two percent of sexual assault female victims between 2005 and 2010 said they didn’t go to the police because they “believed the police could not do anything to help,” according to the DOJ’s National Crime Victimization Survey.

Other reasons for not reporting sexual assault included fearing retaliation (20 percent), believing it wasn’t important enough to report (13 percent) and not wanting to get the perpetrator in trouble (7 percent).

For those who do want to report their case, Briesenick explains that confidentiality with the victim is “super important.”

Briesenick encourages victims to go straight to the police unless the sexual offender attends the same school. In these cases, she suggests the victim speak up to school officials.

“I wouldn’t want a victim to be sitting in class with a suspect and having to deal with that. So we’ll find ways to move people around if that’s the case,” Briesenick said.

She also emphasized that the decision-making following the assault is left up to the victim in terms of whether they want to report their case because “they’ve already had a lot of choices taken away from them.”

Miller told her counselor about the sexual assault during an appointment about her letter of recommendation when Miller’s well-being became the topic of discussion. She said she didn’t feel comfortable discussing the details of her case or the fact that she was assaulted by a current DHS student.

“I wasn’t sure where she personally stood or how admin stood on that issue and whether they would support me,” Miller said. Miller is also uncertain if her assaulter even realizes what he did at the party that night.

Head counselor Courtenay Tessler admits that students generally do not feel comfortable reporting their sexual assault to school counselors. She describes fear, embarrassment and guilt as factors that lead students to keep quiet about their assault.

But victims are not the only ones who can speak up.

What should I do as a bystander?

Miller later learned that the voice she heard yelling at the DHS student to get off her belonged to senior Alex Hill.

“What I saw when I came out to the living room was him on top of her kissing very intimately which in hindsight might have been violent,” Hill said. “I reacted because something just felt weird about the way the male in question had been down so close to her. It was kind of more instinctive.”

He asked them to separate and returned to the living room twice later that night to make sure they stay apart. The next morning he remembers thinking “nothing was off.” Hill was later shocked to learn the extent to which Miller felt threatened that night.

“I was shocked, and also angry that someone who I have known for a long time  would do such a shitty thing to another person,” he said.

Hill took the steps that advocates like Dawn Yackzan, executive director of the Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign, hope all bystanders will take.

Yackzan has been in charge of showing “The Hunting Ground,”  a documentary about rape on college campuses, to DHS seniors for the lsat four years.

“When we work together, we don’t let things pass by and say that’s not my problem. It is. It is everybody’s problem when our power, our friends and our loved one are being harmed,” Yackzan said. “It ripples throughout our families and throughout our communities.”

She urges people to become upstanders in their community and speak up when they see something that doesn’t look right. Briesenick offers additional advice.

“Young men, if you see your friend is trying to hit on the half-passed out drunk girl, grab him by the collar and tell him to knock it off, that real dudes don’t try to have sex with half-drunk girls,” she said.

Does it still count as sexual assault if I’m a male?

One male DHS student, who asked to remain anonymous, said he was sexually assaulted in his sophomore year by a college-aged female. While he did not want to dive into specifics of the assault, the student said he was coerced into a sexual act, meeting one of the criteria for sexual assault as identified by the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.

“I was 15, just kind of shy and awkward, didn’t really know anything about anything,” he said. He met a girl online and was drawn into an awkward relationship.

On one occasion, he went to her house, “and before I really knew what was going on I was kind of deep into a situation I didn’t know how to get myself out of,” he recalled.

“I guess I tried to say no, but it was in a way that wasn’t strong enough. […] like sheepishness. I kinda freaked out. I didn’t know what was going on, so I just sort of stopped doing anything,” he said.

Although one out of 50 victims of rape are male, Briesenick estimates there is a large gap between the rate of assaults and the rate of reporting and the rate of reporting for male victims.

“You can imagine that young men reporting… that’s a huge deal for them, trying to admit that that happened. So, I’m sure it’s vastly unreported,” she said.

The student, now a senior, never told his parents or went to the police. “My girlfriend knows, and one of my best friends knows, but not a lot of people know,” he said.

“I don’t feel that [my assaulter] acted out of malice. I feel like it was more ignorance, so I wouldn’t want her to deal with any kind of consequence of her own,” he said. “Also, I just feel like a negative thing about myself that I don’t think people need to know.”

After the assault, it took the student a long time to emotionally recover.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable in a close situation with people. It took away my whole idea of my own masculinity because it was hard for me to cope with the fact that I didn’t want [sexual advances ] and that’s what I’m supposed to [want]. It took me a long time to [to accept myself],” he said.

According to a study conducted by the National Crime Victimization Survey, 46 percent of male victims reported a female perpetrator. The lack of coverage of this type of assault made it more difficult for him to cope with his experience.

“In general there’s heavy stereotypes as to assault and rape by men against women, which is, to be fair,  a huge proportion of it, but I think that a lot of times we kind of eliminate other types of victims, and that’s kind of sucked for me in general because you feel like nobody else really understands,” he said.

How can I learn more about sexual assault?

The term “sexual assault” is board and encapsulates “any sexual assault based crime defined by the penal code… Rape, sodomy, sexual battery, penetration with a foreign object, statutory rape, etc.,” Briesenick said.

Senior Hallie Lassiter was sitting cross-legged on a bench outside the Odd Fellows Lodge one night two years ago when she was groped by a peer. Because the student made an uninvited sexual advance on her, she considers his actions sexual assault.

“I didn’t really know what to say. I pushed his hand away. It was so surprising, the fact that he thought it was remotely appropriate. It was astonishing how little hesitation [he had],” she said.

No one called him out,  and as a result, he walked away unscathed. Lassiter attributes her assaulter’s boldness to a lack of awareness of sexual assault.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, which includes sexual harassment, or sexual violence such as rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual coercion or dating violence involving students.

Yee Xiong was raped while attending UC Davis in July of 2012. She says that being a responsible and educated citizen is where the prevention begins.

“Victim-blaming won’t stop until we educate enough folks on what sexual assault looks like,” Xiong said.

Miller wishes support was more easily accessible at school.

“We like to say in Davis that we’re a really accepting community and that we’re here for everyone, but I feel like we assume that so much that the options that you have for support aren’t presented,” she said.

Will I ever be the same?

While Miller is in a support group, sees a therapist and has shown improvement, she admits “I don’t think I’ll ever be the same.”

Professionals have outlined five common stages for recovery after a sexual assault occurs. According to the Women and Gender Advocacy Center at Colorado State University the stages are as follows: initial shock, denial, reactivation, anger and integration. 

“I certainly have gone through some of those stages, I don’t feel that once you get out of a stage, you can’t be angry, shocked or in denial anymore. I think that some might feel one stage more than another or not feel a certain stage at all,” Miller said. “Everyone is different and you shouldn’t put a victim in a box of what you think they should act like.”

RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network states that the most prevalent after-effects of sexual assault include depression, flashbacks and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Ninety-four percent of women who are raped experience PTSD symptoms during the two weeks following the rape, according to the Journal of Traumatic Stress. These symptoms can last for months, years and even life.

Additionally, approximately 70 percent of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress, a larger percentage than for any other violent crime, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.

While some victims turn to self-harm or suicide, some survivors turn to advocacy to find closure. 

Xiong’s rapist, Lung Her, was not convicted until four years after her rape. After this long process and much emotional toll, Xiong now focuses on educating others.

“[Advocating for other victims] means that they’re strong for a reason and they can use their voice to be able to advocate on behalf of survivors who don’t have the privilege of speaking up and doing something about it,” Xiong said.

The male student who wished to remain anonymous believes recovering comes from self-acceptance. 

“I think it’s important to recognize that it is more common than you think. I know it took me a long time to get through it and come out the other side more or less okay. I think you need to take some time to appreciate yourself, and once you learn to actually like yourself, you can actually stand up for yourself, which is important,” he said.

(Published in the May 3, 2017 issue of The HUB)