When 15-year-old Aela Mansmann decided to spread a message about sexual assault at her school, she passed over the typical hotspots of teen social sharing. She didn’t want to use Instagram or TikTok or Twitter. She opted instead for a Post-it note.
“There’s a rapist in our school and you know who it is,” wrote Mansmann, pasting the note in the girls’ bathroom at Cape Elizabeth High School (CEHS), an affluent public school on the southern coast of Maine. For months, she’d tried to convince the administration to respond to the stories of sexual assault circulating around the school. The Post-it, Mansmann’s mother, Shael Norris, said, was a kind of last-ditch effort to make school leaders pay attention.
Within two weeks, Mansmann was suspended for “bullying,” along with two other students who wrote similar notes. Any more of this kind of behavior, the principal warned, could get them expelled.
Represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Maine, Mansmann and Norris have filed a complaint in federal court. On Monday, ACLU attorneys argued that school administrators “mishandled the entire case.” By suspending her, and forbidding her from participating in similar activism in the future, the school is infringing on Mansmann’s First Amendment rights, they said. (Administrators at Cape Elizabeth High School did not respond to a request for comment.)
Mansmann is well-known for her activism, especially on issues of sexual assault, winning national recognition as one of U.S. Cellular’s “16 under 16” who “personify the future of good.” This spring, she organized “Consent: The Way Life Should Be,” a sexual assault prevention summit attended by over 750 students across Maine. Because of all this, Mansmann is often approached by classmates who want to share their sexual assault stories, but aren’t quite ready to tell an adult.
“Once you’re an advocate on this issue, people start seeing you as a safe person and an ally, someone to come to,” said Emma Bond, one of Mansmann’s attorneys. “So often people don’t feel comfortable going to authority figures.” After the summit, Norris added, Mansmann’s classmates “just started spilling stuff.”
There have been five substantiated Title IX complaints at CEHS in the past year, said Bond, many filed by students who experienced sexual assault or harassment that interfered with their education. As at many other high schools, there is no widely publicized procedure for reporting sexual misconduct at CEHS.
Mansmann wanted to change that, said Norris, who runs a local sexual assault advocacy organization, SafeBAE, and inspired Mansmann’s interest in sexual assault advocacy. In June, Mansmann and a few friends showed up at a school board meeting, each recounting stories of sexual misconduct experienced by students. She advocated for a “comprehensive policy that would encourage reporting,” according to the complaint. The board members listened, but did not follow up with Mansmann and her friends after the meeting.
“That’s where it all kind of escalated for Aela,” said Norris. She was like, ‘Okay, I’ve tried everything else. I’m going to try something different.’”
The school initially treated the Post-it note as an informal Title IX complaint. They interviewed 20 people in the first few days, principal Jeff Shedd wrote in a letter to parents and students, gathering as much information as possible about incidents that might have inspired the note.
“We began investigating immediately, with two paramount questions in mind: are there young people who have been the victims of rape by one of our students? Are our students safe?” Sledd wrote.
As administrators used Mansmann’s Post-it to investigate, they simultaneously argued that the note never should have been posted. The incident brought “the tides of polarization” and “tribalism” to Cape Elizabeth, wrote Shedd. It was a clear instance of bullying, he said, defined as a “pattern of… expression...directed at a student… that [created] an intimidating… educational environment” The Post-its were directed at one particular person, he said — and everyone knew who that student was, which made it difficult for him to come to school. (Mansmann denies this, according to the complaint. She had spoken to many different alleged victims, and wanted to raise awareness about multiple perpetrators, Bond said.)
In subsequent letters to the school community, administrators said Mansmann and her fellow Post-it posters were “well motivated, with good intentions,” ultimately prompting important investigations within the school.
But the school cannot have it both ways, said Bond: The Post-it cannot simultaneously be considered a “well-intentioned” Title IX complaint and an act of bullying. Title IX explicitly prohibits schools from retaliating against students who come forward to report sexual assault, Bond said. Mansmann’s attorneys are arguing that the suspension constitutes retaliation.
Mansmann agreed to pursue her case with the ACLU because she knows there is much more at stake than her suspension, said Norris.
“I just told her, bunny, this is so much bigger than you and I. They are trying to silence people,” Norris said.
If the judge sides with the school, allowing Mansmann’s suspension to move forward, Bond worries it will have a “chilling effect” for student victims of sexual assault.
“People don’t speak out about sexual assault because they are worried they will be retaliated against by people in positions of authority,” said Bond. “To have disciplinary action taken against someone who the school thinks didn’t speak out in just the right way … that sends a message that maybe you should just be quiet about it.”
The discipline meted out by the CEHS administration seems designed to prevent students from sharing stories of sexual misconduct, said Bond. In addition to the actual suspension, Shedd cautions Mansmann against “any future actions of this sort,” which could result in suspension or expulsion. The phrase “of this sort” is particularly concerning, Bond added, because it could encompass all manner of behaviors.
“It is so vague that it could be reasonably interpreted to refer to any kind of advocacy. We do not want schools or any government making these very vague pronouncements about what is permissible, when it comes to speech, and what is not,” said Bond.
Bond knows that other schools — and student victims — are probably watching. If the judge decides that Mansmann’s suspension was fair, she said, they will notice.