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A student at a Utah high school threatened to carry out a ‘rape day’ against girls

The photo was originally shared from Cedar High School in Cedar City.

(Mark Havnes | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cedar High School in Cedar City in 2011.

Editor’s note: This story discusses threats of sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.

A social media post from a Utah high school student threatening to carry out a “rape day” — and telling girls they won’t be able to hide — has sowed fear in a rural community here.

Girls at Cedar High, in the southern town of Cedar City, say they don’t feel safe. The other boys included in the picture that the student posted say they didn’t know about his caption and are now facing death threats themselves by being caught up in it.

“I think the challenge here is social media,” said Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, the executive director of Utah’s Rape Recovery Center. “It’s frustrating that someone would use this as an attention grabber and use it to bully their peers. I’m not making light of it.”

The photo was originally posted on the Snapchat app on Monday. Screenshots of it have since been shared widely across several platforms, gaining widespread attention in what is supposed to be National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

In the post, a male student can be seen to one side, arm stretched out, taking a selfie with seven boys behind him sitting on benches in the school cafeteria at Cedar High.

The boys in the background appear to be having fun, smiling and holding up their hands in the “hang loose” sign. Some are wearing paper crowns from Burger King. Two girls are at other tables further back, not looking up from their phones.

The text on top of the picture then references April 24, which has recently trended across the country on social media, particularly TikTok, with some men declaring it “National Rape Day.” The spokesperson for TikTok had said that the threats of assault are not credible and it doesn’t appear anyone had plans to carry that out. The posts keep coming, though.

This appears to be the most local example tagged in Utah.

The caption from the Cedar High student who took the picture says the boys at Cedar High would be participating in that “holiday” and reads: “We’re coming. April 24th. BE ready. You can run. But you can’t hide ………”

Parents then flooded the school and Iron County School District with calls of concern, including those of the boys who say their kids were unknowingly featured in the photo and had no part in the threat.

Administrators at both offices for Cedar High and the district acknowledged the worries with a statement on Twitter, noting they were “keenly aware” of the picture and were investigating it. They noted: “There is no viable threat to the safety of our students from this post.”

But it has roiled the town and even spread into schools further north in Utah, including in Salt Lake County, where students at Olympus High and East High have reported seeing screenshots on Instagram and Snapchat. Several have responded by sharing tips and videos about self-defense, and many advocates have condemned the posts for seemingly treating sexual assault as a funny prank.

One father whose daughter goes to Cedar High said the family was offended by the post. He noted, “It’s just a ridiculous thing to joke about it.”

Boys facing death threats

Iron County Superintendent Shannon Dulaney said the school district got local law enforcement involved as soon as students started alerting the administration about the post on Monday.

In an email to The Salt Lake Tribune, Dulaney called it “inappropriate and offensive” and said the district has started an investigation into the matter. It is not clear yet whether the boy who posted the photo will face discipline or potential criminal charges; it is illegal to threaten assault.

The Tribune received several copies of the picture. It is not including the photo in this story because it clearly shows and identifies the boys, who are all minors.

Dulaney confirmed that the district’s review, so far, has found that the seven boys in the background of the photo were not aware of what the caption would be and did not consent to participating.

She said, “A single student was responsible for posting a group photo with the accompanying offensive caption.”

The incident, though, shows how powerful — and dangerous — social media can be and how far it can reach.

A father of one of the boys in the back of the photo spoke to The Tribune. The paper has agreed not to name him to protect the identity of his son.

Even though he said his son had nothing to do with the picture or the caption, the 16-year-old boy is now facing death threats from people in the community and across the country.

He said his son was eating lunch with some friends when another boy approached them. The boy, who the father said the others didn’t know well, held up his arm and shouted, “bro pic,” and then snapped the photo. That boy later posted the photo on social media, tagging the others with the “rape day” threat.

The father said his son and the others told the boy it was inappropriate and to take it down. The boy apparently refused, and the group of boys went to tell an administrator.

“But it was too late,” the father said. “It had circulated around the globe.”

Now, he said, his son has faced several serious death threats with people calling him a rapist. His son’s personal address and phone number have also been posted on the internet. The Tribune was able to confirm through a search that has happened.

He said the school has also asked the seven other boys to stay home from school for now “for their safety.”

“They’re not suspended,” the father said. “They’ve just said it’s not safe for them to go to class.”

His son, he added, is now so afraid that his father has to reassure him constantly that he’s set the security system alarms at their house.

The other boys are victims in this, the father said, and have been unknowingly caught up in something they had no part in. He noted: They’re innocent.

Concern for victims and survivors

In addition to the safety of the boys in the background of the photo, advocates say they’re extremely concerned about the effect of the post on girls, in particular, and any survivors of assault attending Cedar High.

Several girls have posted that they don’t plan on attending school for the next few days because they’re worried.

One told The Tribune that she has experienced sexual assault before and feels “very, very paranoid at this point.” She has already requested to take a sick day from her job at a local bakery on Saturday after the posts about the “rape day.” She doesn’t plan to leave her house at all.

Alexandra Allen, a victim advocate with the Utah Crime Victims Legal Clinic, said one in three women in the state report having been assaulted. And the rates are higher for those under the age of 18.

“I think it’s shocking that we have young men that are not even adults who have been raised, either by media or their family, to think this behavior is OK and a sign of masculinity and power,” she said.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Victims advocate Alexandra Allen speaks to the Legislature on Jan. 27, 2021.

Allen added that assault should never be treated as a joke. She called on the school to provide a safer environment for students by teaching about consent in relationships, what’s appropriate and what’s sexual harassment.

“There needs to be active conversations about literally human decency,” Allen said.

She also noted that while the post specifically targeted the girls at the school, anyone can experience assault, and it would be healthy to discuss it openly to help prevent it. The Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault put out a statement advising the same, noting “when unchecked, rape jokes send a harmful message that the trauma of sexual assault is not taken seriously.”

Dulaney said the district and school officials have in the days since the post “worked closely together to address concerns of the larger student body, especially female students, and the community to make sure that all students feel secure.”

That includes, she said, making sure that students always have access to counselors and other specialists to talk about concerns.

Dulaney noted, as well: “The district will use this as a teaching opportunity to help those directly involved, and the larger student community, understand what it means to be socially responsible, respectful and that harassment in any form is unacceptable.”

Martinez-Ortiz with the Rape Recovery Center said that’s an appropriate response.

She also noted that this April, to commemorate National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, experts have been particularly focused on creating safe online spaces. The post at Cedar High, she said, shows why that’s important and will continue to need to be addressed.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable and inappropriate to talk about rape and sexual assault in this way,” she said, referring to the student’s post. “This is most likely very triggering for existing survivors. The idea that someone’s safety could be compromised, the idea of not having body autonomy are very concerning issues.”

Anyone at the school who may have experienced assault before, she added, could be “re-traumatized and re-triggered” by the threat.

Martinez-Ortiz said the school should consider engaging with a local sexual assault prevention education provider in Iron County or at the Rape Recovery Center that could come into the school and discuss the topic with students.

The goal, she added, is “how do we not tolerate this in any form.”

“It’s really the responsibility of the schools to ensure that they have really strong sexual harassment policies,” Martinez-Ortiz said, “and that they implement them and hold students accountable who are engaging in this type in this behavior.”

A ‘bigger cultural issue’?

When the posts were first shared on social media, several people in Cedar City quickly responded to condemn the behavior. One woman tagged the school and called it “disgusting.” A man commented on Facebook, saying: “I don’t give a f--- if it’s real or not. You don’t f---ing joke about rape.”

But others have jumped in to defend the boy, saying he’s young and didn’t know what he was doing. One said, “Boys will be boys.” Many said it was “just a joke.” Even the district superintendent referred to it as an “unfortunate and ill-conceived prank” in her statement.

A father whose daughter attends Cedar High said it has created a lot of tension in the small town of Cedar City. He asked not to be named to protect his daughter and because of the division on the issue. The Tribune has confirmed his identity.

He said there’s a “bigger cultural issue” in the town that continues to fight over Cedar High’s mascot. The “rape day” post, he believes, is “emblematic of the problem here” when it comes to accepting diversity with race, ethnicity and sex.

For instance, at the high school, he said the dress code is different for girls than it is for boys. Boys are allowed to wear tank tops; girls are called into the front office if they do. If a girl is wearing a skirt that administrators think is too short, she’s also asked to bend down in front of them to see if the skirt touches the floor when she’s kneeling.

“That’s degrading,” the father said. “And I believe it has emboldened some boys to act out.”

He also said that during the presidential election season last fall, boys at the school would run up and down the hallways waving flags in support of former President Donald Trump. And several would yell at his daughter, he said, who has darker skin to “leave the country” and “go to the other side of the wall,” referring to the border wall between the United States and Mexico that Trump started to build to stymie immigration.

He said that when that happened, he was told by administrators the same thing that people commented about the “rape day” post: “Boys will be boys.”

He worries with that response, the district won’t take this latest incident seriously.

“It’s maddening,” the father said. “We can’t raise kids like this.”

He doesn’t want his daughter to be afraid to go to class. He doesn’t want innocent kids to be accidentally caught up in a threat.

And he doesn’t want his small community to ignore or brush aside the real problems that he believes the social media post has exposed.

SEXUAL ASSAULT RESOURCES:

The posts about “rape day” can be triggering for some survivors of assault. There are resources across the state and nation for anyone who may need to talk or wants more information.

-The Utah Rape Recovery Center has a hotline at 801-467-7273.

-Utah runs a 24-hour sexual violence crisis number at 1-888-421-1100, which anyone can call — whether or not they’ve experienced an assault or just want to talk.

-Canyon Creek Services, which is local to Iron County, is available at 435-233-5732.

-RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, has specialists available 24/7 at 800-656-HOPE. You can also start a virtual chat at hotline.rainn.org/online.

-Additionally, there is a list of resources at www.ucasa.org/resources.

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