Aela Mansmann was careful not to name any names. "There's a rapist in our school and you know who it is," she wrote on yellow sticky notes, leaving them on bathroom walls at her coastal Maine high school. The 15-year-old felt that administrators hadn't been doing enough to respond to allegations of sexual assault, and she hoped her small act of protest would start a conversation.
Instead, her school suspended her, saying that the anonymous notes amounted to bullying.
"I definitely am ashamed to say I go to Cape Elizabeth High School with this being their reaction," Mansmann told WGME on Monday, as dozens of students walked out of class to protest her punishment.
Though school officials say they are merely abiding by their own anti-bullying policies, Mansmann and her parents have argued that the suspension is a violation of the teenager's right to free speech. The students who gathered outside the high school on Monday agreed, questioning how a note that didn't include any names or identifying details could be considered bullying. Holding signs that read "I choose to believe survivors" and "Rape culture has got to go," they said they wanted Mansmann and two other students who were suspended for helping to post the sticky notes to have their records expunged.
Though only a sophomore, Mansmann has already made a name for herself as an activist, winning awards for her advocacy around sexual harassment and assault, and helping to lead a teen summit on combating sexual violence. Recently, the 15-year-old told the Portland Press Herald, she grew frustrated after talking with students at Cape Elizabeth High School who felt they had been ignored by school administrators after coming forward with allegations of sexual assault.
The public high school, which has roughly 600 students and is located just south of Portland, Maine, conducted seven investigations into allegations of sexual harassment or assault during the previous school year, the paper reported. In four of those cases, officials concluded that it was "more likely than not" that a violation of Title IX occurred, and took action. But in recent months, some students have said that they feel administrators brushed their concerns under the rug.
"On a day-to-day level we don't feel believed," Mansmann told WCSH. "We don't feel supported."
While district officials say they are doing everything possible to make the school safe, such as updating their policies on sexual harassment and assault, the sophomore felt they weren't going far enough. So, she decided to take matters into her own hands.
On Sept. 16, she and several other students decorated two girls' bathrooms with handwritten sticky notes, warning of a rapist on campus. Mansmann has said that the intention was to draw attention to several different incidents where students were allegedly sexual assaulted, though it's not clear if the notes were intended to call out one specific perpetrator. (Officials deny that there is a rapist enrolled at the school.)
From the start, Mansmann admitted that she was responsible for the anonymous notes. Her mother, Shael Norris, told the Press Herald that school officials assured her that the teenager wouldn't be punished. Then, on Friday morning, the paper published an extensive story on students' concerns about the handling of sexual assault cases, which quoted Mansmann and mentioned the sticky notes.
"Cape Elizabeth High School is not special, sexual assault happens everywhere," the 15-year-old wrote on Facebook, sharing the article to her timeline. "But just like every other school, we have work to do."
Later that day, she was yanked out of class and informed that she was being suspended for three days. "I was told someone made a complaint that I was bullying them," Mansmann told the Press Herald. "So I thought, why is this person self-identifying as the (alleged) rapist?"
Cape Elizabeth Schools define bullying broadly, noting that it can include a range of behaviors such as "creating an intimidating or hostile educational environment" and "interfering with the student's academic performance." A Friday statement from the school district said that officials "have never disciplined a student for advocating for their peers or their views on cultural, social and political matters," but are legally obligated to take action "when a student's speech bullies another student [ . . .] even if that same student has also spoken out on a matter of public concern."
Though barred from commenting on Mansmann's case due to privacy laws, school officials "are confident that the matter was exhaustively investigated and that we took the action that law and policy required," the statement concluded.
Students who took part in the walkout on Monday said that two other girls were also suspended for hanging the anonymous notes. In an interview with WCSH, Donna Wolfrom, the superintendent for Cape Elizabeth Schools, said that the sticky notes had "caused a lot of confusion," and were not the proper way for students to voice their frustrations.
"It had adverse effects on other students," she said. "I think there could have been a better way to do it."
Mansmann's parents have appealed her suspension. Her mother, who co-founded a national sexual assault prevention group named SafeBAE, told the Press Herald that before handing down the punishment, school officials pressured her daughter to name the other students who were involved, and the teenager refused.
"They wanted her to name everyone who told her about an assault, but she'd didn't feel comfortable doing that," Norris said.
Roughly 50 students walked out of class on Monday morning to protest the district's decision, the paper reported. Mansmann, who is allowed to attend school while her suspension is being appealed, joined them.
"It makes me angry that I'm being punished for bullying and a rapist isn't being punished for raping people," she told WCSH.