3 Bellevue students say they told school leaders about abuse, sexual misconduct, but response was lacking
Editor's note 12/04/2021: When this story was published, the woman currently named "A" went by her full name. After the story published, however, A and her family decided that her name should be removed, and we agreed to use her first initial instead.
This story contains depictions of sexual violence.
Three years ago, at Interlake High School in Bellevue, student Priyal Sahai said she was cornered and groped by another student in the girl’s bathroom. When she told an assistant principal what happened, Sahai said he told her to give the teen boy “grace,” because he was going through a rough time.
Months later, another student, A, said the same person forcibly penetrated her. While he was expelled three days later, she said administrators told her to keep what happened to her “on the down low.”
Two years later, further south at Newport High School, also in Bellevue, student Alex Su told an assistant principal that her ex-boyfriend, a classmate, had physically and emotionally harmed her. She and the assistant principal discussed him being removed from the class they shared, because she was scared to be around him. After weeks of no change, Su shared her story on Instagram. She was later expelled after protesting against the district’s approach.
In each case, the teen girls said that Bellevue Public Schools' response was inadequate, and that staff lacked the training to successfully navigate students experiencing trauma. When confiding in school administrators, the teenagers said their concerns were minimized, and that they were told to stay quiet. One teen said that she was threatened with suspension if she shared what happened on social media, because it disrupted the school’s learning environment. The students said that there was a lack of accountability for classmates who pushed, groped, and raped them, and as they wait for investigations to conlude, they see the students who harmed them at school.
High school students all over Bellevue have protested, saying that the district’s response speaks to a larger problem of students not being heard, and protected.
During a recent board of directors meeting, in addressing the recent protests, Superintendent Art Jarvis said there are no simple solutions for these student concerns, because the required state and federal protocols are important, and that they exist to “ensure fair representation for all, as the district investigates any assertions or allegations.”
“I will be working with my executive staff to say, how could we provide … change that could improve our way of interfacing with students and recognizing that students need advocacy with our own systems.”
Standing before Interlake High School's brick facade, an overcast sky above, students took turns manning the microphone to share their accounts of assault. It was the week before Thanksgiving. One recent incident, they said, took place backstage during a tech rehearsal for their fall play "You Can't Take it With You.”
It was during this protest that senior Priyal Sahai publicly shared, for the first time, what happened to her, just yards away in the girl’s restroom. She hadn’t spoken out before, she said, first because of denial, and then shame.
Sahai had been a freshman, a former private school kid newly thrust into the public school world. She made friends with another freshman, and he began pursuing her. Sahai rejected him, she said, and once, when she was talking to some boys in the hall, he became jealous.
One day, during the passing period after the Advanced Placement human geography class they shared, Sahai went to use the restroom. It was empty.
The freshman followed her into the bathroom, she said, cornering her and groping her with both hands. He tried to kiss her, she said, but she swerved. At the time, she wasn’t sure what was happening. She was in shock, and after the unwanted groping ended, she went to her 6th period class.
Later that same day, Sahai said the freshman texted her, threatening to kill himself if she told anyone what had happened. He included a photo of himself, holding a knife to his body.
“I was freaked out,” Sahai said. “I was clearly shaken. For the next two days, he didn't show up to school, and I thought he was dead — that traumatized me so much.”
Sahai’s friend encouraged her to talk to a counselor about it, and she did, first sharing that the freshman had threatened to kill himself, and showing the counselor the image on her phone.
“When she asked why he said that, I explained how he assaulted me sexually in the bathroom, and he wanted me to stay silent,” she said.
The freshman was pulled out of classes for a few days, Sahai said, and after school leadership spoke with the freshman, they called Sahai.
“Hey, he's going through a rough time,” Sahai recalled an assistant principal telling her. She said he told her he was in a difficult family situation, that he played a lot of sports, and was dealing with a lot. “Just have some grace,” she said he told her.
Sahai does not believe school administrators called police, despite a state law requiring that educators report abuse to law enforcement. A 911 log shows no call coming from Interlake High School that day. KUOW reached out to Interlake’s principal at the time, but she deferred to the district. The district spokesperson said by email that she had no information about this incident.
After this happened, Sahai was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, and as a result, wound up in denial that it had ever occurred, she said.
For the next semester, Sahai saw the freshman every school day. They sang romantic duets together in jazz class, and she watched as he was “idolized in the hall” by students unaware of what had happened to her.
“Because I convinced myself that I had lied, I was the one who felt guilty after everything,” she said. “At the end of the day, I felt horrible. So I spent the next year convinced that it never even happened.”
Five months later, the freshman allegedly harmed another student.
Sophomore A dreamed of producing and performing music, which she described as a cathartic passion. In 2019, she had two classes with the freshman. She said he would ask her repeatedly over text message to send him photos and do things she wasn’t comfortable doing.
“Even after I would say ‘no’ so many times, he would keep harassing me,” A said. This pattern continued until one day, A said the freshman forcibly had sex with her in a closet on school grounds. She said she consented to kissing, but was pushed and threatened into going further after saying no, including acts she didn’t agree to. When she tried to leave, he held her there.
“I knew he wasn't great,” A said. “I knew that he was pushy, but I believed he had a limit. But I think that day, I kind of found out he didn't.”
For the first week, A didn’t share what happened with adults. A week later, at friends’ encouragement, she told her parents, and they went to school administrators. Administrators called police, and called in other students who had negative experiences with the freshman, including Sahai who was sharing a second time.
“When we told the school, we gave a lot of evidence, a lot of text messages and screenshots and stuff that happened,” A said. “They did expel him, so they took some initiative. But they also said that they didn't want me to talk about it, and to keep a low profile.”
What made her experience more trying were the rumors spreading that A had lied about the assault or that it was her fault, she said, and that school leadership encouraged her to keep her head down.
“I just didn't know what the repercussions for me would be,” she said. “ I didn't want to risk it, because I just wanted to graduate.”
During her last week of high school last summer, before heading to Berklee College of Music, A spoke out against what happened to her, and what she called the rape culture at Interlake.
“If you feel like your actions have contributed to rape culture in some way, I suggest you hold yourself accountable, apologize, and try to do better for the future,” she said in a video she posted to Instagram. “Change starts on a personal level and these small actions can be the start of healing and growth.”
ewport High School senior Alex Su said a vice principal threatened her with suspension if she didn’t remove a post she made on Instagram. Su had been meeting with the vice principal for weeks about her ex-boyfriend, a classmate she said emotionally hurt her and physically harmed her by hitting, pushing, and throwing things at her.
The assistant principal offered to file a police report and to implement a safety plan, said Janine Thorn, a spokesperson for the Bellevue School District.
One part of the proposed safety plan said the two students should not be seated near one another. Su felt anxious near him — she said it made learning impossible. One time, they were seated next to one another in their class. Other times, she’d leave class and go to the office.
“He sort of brushed it off,” Su said about that initial meeting with the vice principal. “He was really nonchalant about it. And that was what sort of annoyed me in the beginning was how careless they seemed with a really sensitive piece of information that I shared.”
They spoke about what steps could be taken to address Su’s safety concerns, but these steps didn’t happen, and after district and police investigations were launched, and weeks went by with no change, Su said she was tired of waiting.
“It’s been 5 to 6 weeks since I told administrators, and nothing is being done, they won’t remove him from my classes or hold him accountable for anything,” Su wrote in October on Instagram, where she’s been documenting her story.
Further in the post she wrote, “I’m not posting about this for sympathy, but just because I am angry that even by ‘telling a trusted adult’ nothing has happened and (Bellevue School District) has not taken any appropriate action. I sent the vice principal pictures of bruises and texts of this boy admitting he hit me multiple times. I’m not sure what else to do at this moment. I don’t feel safe at school.”
When Newport High School leadership saw Su’s post, they asked her to remove it because it made the student she had accused feel unsafe, she said. Bellevue School District said a safety plan they put in place to “protect both students” required that neither of them post about the other on social media. Su didn’t sign the plan, she said.
The tension reached a turning point as Su and hundreds of other students at Newport High School walked out of class in late November. The protest was in support of Su but also other students who said they were sexually assaulted or harmed, and that school leaders gave a milquetoast response.
The protest began outside, and moved indoors, prompting a school lockdown and Bellevue Police to be dispatched. Police arrived, but left because there were no crimes being committed, a police department spokesperson said.
“It was reported that as a small subset of students began to come back into the building, quite a bit of behaviors were displayed that were counter to (the) policy of peaceful demonstration, and they began to disrupt the learning environment for the other students,” said Thorn, the district spokesperson.
She said the school district is “uniquely interested” in making sure students can learn in a “peaceful and conducive” environment. That wasn't the case during the protest, she said, and the lockdown was issued to restore that order for all students.
However, Thorn said, “the good that has come out of this is that the district is working with the community, students, and parents to develop better ways to hear from each other and implement ways for all students to feel safe in schools.”
The district expelled Su, along with four other students who helped to organize the walkout. The students can appeal their expulsion. Su has been out of school since Nov. 19.
In an email to parents, Principal Dion Yahoudy wrote that students exceeded the limits spelled out in the district’s rules on protesting, Policy No. 3223, which says that while students may meet on school grounds, they’re only allowed to hold “peaceful” demonstrations in designated areas and times that do not “disrupt classes or other school activities.”
By the next week, students at Interlake, Mercer Island, Sammamish and other high schools held school-approved protests, in solidarity with Newport, Su, and survivors. And despite their classmates being expelled, students at Newport held a silent sit in.
Resources for victims and survivors of abuse:
- King County Sexual Assault Resource Center: 888-998-6423 // Hotline for therapy, legal advocates and family services
- UW Medicine Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress: 206-744-1600 // Hotline, resources including counseling and medical care
- Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs // List of providers across the state that offer free services.
Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network (RAINN): 800-656-4673 // Hotline and/or online chat with trained staff