The Time Is Now

Support local, independent reporting.

Help the city we love by joining Friends of Willamette Week.

JOIN NOW

This Spring, Teens at Portland High Schools Turned to Snapchat to Make Allegations of Sexual Violence Against Other Students

Students and administrators agree this was an unprecedented event.

Fia Ferber, then a sophomore at McDaniel High School in Northeast Portland, sat in her backyard last October and typed out a long Snapchat post. Ferber was 15 years old. She asked her boyfriend to look over what she had written. Then she took a deep breath, published the post, and put down her phone.

Within hours, her post had been screenshotted over 70 times and shared countless more.

The post named a male classmate she accused of sexually assaulting her by pressuring her into sex in June 2019.

Ferber didn’t realize it, but she was writing a new chapter for the #MeToo movement in Portland Public Schools. Within six months, dozens of Portland high school students would follow her example, forcing a reckoning among hall lockers and a crisis for school administrators.

At the time, Ferber just wanted to say something.

“I was so angry and I felt so many things,” Ferber says, adding that she had bottled up the incident, which she said had taken place more than a year earlier. “I just was like, ‘You know what, I’m tired of being quiet.’”

Since Ferber’s post, Snapchat has become the platform Portland teenagers use to share allegations of sexual violence.

In mid-May 2021, half a year after Ferber’s initial post, allegations by Portland students, mostly female, filled the app with graphic accounts of rape and sexual assault by other students, mostly male.

From May 16 to Aug. 13, Willamette Week documented 36 Snapchat posts by Portland high school students alleging sexual violence by other students.

Students posted paragraphs-long accusations, always naming their alleged assailants. Posts were shared over and over, keeping them circulating for far longer than a single Snapchat story’s 24-hour life-span.

It was a hyperlocalized and youthful segment of the #MeToo movement.

Students and administrators agree this was an unprecedented event. Liam Cresswell, a senior at Grant High School, says he has never experienced anything like it. “Seeing so many accusations at once was really overwhelming,” he says. “It was all anyone could talk about.”

All of this activity on Snapchat occurred after 14 months of COVID-19 lockdown, when virtual schooling had already jangled many students’ nerves.

The phenomenon raises important questions about how accusations made online, without proof, should be handled. It shows how murky the waters of serious allegations are when posted on social media: Viewers are forced to make decisions about the credibility of posts. Peers decide the social consequences for alleged perpetrators, and they are often painful.

“It’s like being accused of murder,” says one male student, who was named in May by a female classmate for allegedly sexually assaulting her. He denies the accusation: “Your life doesn’t go back to normal after that. Even if you didn’t do it, it’s not going to be the same.”

Snapchat is a social media app, popular among young people, that can be used to share photos, often with added text or other visual effects. What sets Snapchat apart from other social media apps is that all posts disappear after 24 hours.

The slew of posts began on May 16, 2021. Attending class in person was optional then because of COVID-19. The allegations ranged from inappropriate comments and unwanted touching to rape and repeated sexual abuse.

In most posts, students described what happened to them as “sexual assault.” The Oregon Department of Justice defines sexual assault as any sexual encounter that occurs without a person’s consent, including rape, attempted rape, and inappropriate touching.

“The purpose of this post is not to set people on him,” reads one accusation made May 20 by a Grant student that vaguely describes an alleged sexual assault and names the accused. “I simply want to warn other girls that may be talking to him. I just don’t want anything like this to happen again.”

Each post brought a cascade of others.

In almost every post, accusers said they had been sexually assaulted by someone they knew. Of the 36 accusations documented by WW, 12 named a former romantic partner. None of the allegations described assault by a stranger.

“This is something that I have been trying to find the courage to speak up on for a long time, and now with everyone else telling their truth, I finally feel comfortable sharing mine,” a young woman at Franklin High posted, also on May 20, accusing three male students of sexual assault on three different occasions.

That same day, Franklin student Alix Eckelberg-Barry started a list of students named as alleged rapists and abusers and posted it on Snapchat. “I realized how much awareness needed to be spread about this and how little people were paying attention to it,” Eckelberg-Barry says. She just wanted all the names in one place.

She now regrets it.

“In my mind, a list of names was an easy way to share people who are potentially dangerous to women for others around them,” Eckelberg-Barry says. “As I progressed, I realized how terrible of an idea it actually was, and it turned into something that I didn’t want it to be.”

Snapchat users screenshotted her original list and added new names, often without context. At least one name was placed on the list accidentally, and some students posted claims that names had been placed on lists out of spite or anger, not because they had committed sexual violence.

Within a few days, over 60 Portland teens, mostly young men, were listed under the heading “Rapists/Abusers/People to Avoid-PORTLAND OREGON.” Like many of the accusations, the list circulated for far longer than the short life of Snapchat posts as it was shared over and over.

For many of those accused or listed as dangerous, there have been consequences.

WW spoke with four male students and one student who asked not to be identified by gender who were accused on Snapchat of committing sexual violence. They all denied the claims and requested anonymity.

They detailed to WW how they were harassed online and ostracized. Some received death threats. Many contemplated suicide. None of those WW spoke with have faced legal or school-based disciplinary action.

One of the students, who was accused of sexual assault in May and denies the allegation, recalls opening Snapchat and seeing their name everywhere. They panicked and said they had no idea what to do. Friends stopped speaking to them. They started to receive threats and abusive messages from peers, telling them that they were a horrible person and didn’t have any right to share their perspective on the incident. Eventually, they wrote their side of the story—in a Snapchat post.

On June 3, about two weeks after the flood of allegations, Portland Public Schools’ Title IX department sent out an email discouraging the sharing of accusations.

“Sharing a story publicly on social media alone is not an effective or recommended way to initiate a school-based investigation,” the email read. “The choice to report is theirs and should occur only after they understand their rights and options. This reality conflicts with the experience of posting the story, which for the victim, may feel like an act of reporting.”

Liane O’Banion, PPS’s Title IX director, explained to WW why the district finally decided to address the issue. “It happened prior to this, but [the incidents were] very isolated. It wasn’t a trend the way we’re seeing it now, with dozens or more posts and pages dedicated to calling out,” she says. “I felt that this was a situation where we needed to get youth talking to one another, and we needed to get parents involved.”

The posts were affecting school safety and the emotional and physical well-being of some students, O’Banion says. “We were starting to see some targeted harassment and bullying [of accused students] that was becoming really serious.”

She declined to say whether there have been any cases of physical harm.

The PPS email also pointed out that a disproportionate number of those accused were men of color and mentioned historic stereotypes that are pervasive and dangerous.

“Given the substantial history of Black men in particular being accused of sexual violence throughout history, it felt like not acknowledging that was ignoring a very important piece of this,” says O’Banion.

Principals at Grant and Franklin high schools, where most of the Snapchat posts were centered, did not respond to requests for comment.

School resumes today, Sept. 1. For a significant number of students, that means returning to buildings where they may pass their alleged abusers or accusers in the halls.

Almost a year after her initial post, Ferber is reflecting on the fact that she arguably started a movement. “I don’t think I regret it,” she says. “I don’t know the entirety of its impact but, for me at least, coming forward was the right choice.”

Veronica Bianco is a junior at Grant High School, where she writes for the student magazine.

Held Accountable

If the teenagers in this story took to Snapchat with accusations of sexual abuse, why didn’t they go to school officials and file a complaint? Some say they did.

Two students told WW they turned to Snapchat because they felt school administrators ignored them, and three others said they declined to make reports because they didn’t think they would be handled adequately.

Survivors of sexual assault often don’t report to authorities because they don’t believe the incidents will be properly investigated. According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, only 310 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement. Just 50 of those lead to arrest, and a mere 28 lead to conviction.

One young woman, who requested anonymity, said she was forcibly assaulted in 2020 by a schoolmate who pulled her into a restroom and lifted her shirt before trying to kiss her, and then groped her as she walked away. She says she reported the incident to Grant High School administrators, who told her they had looked into the matter but couldn’t disclose what, if any, disciplinary measures had been taken against the alleged perpetrator.

She says all she was told was that her claim was found to be “valid.” The student says the school didn’t report the incident to police.

Three months later, she turned to Snapchat. The post begins: “This needs to be brought to light as he is a predator and needs to be stopped.”

Liane O’Banion, Title IX director for Portland Public Schools, says the district can’t launch investigations into claims made on Snapchat unless a report is made to the school. But she says the district does an adequate job of addressing and investigating reports of sexual assault.

“If you are treated with respect and compassion and transparency, the outcome matters much less than the opportunity to tell your story and heal,” she says, adding that PPS achieves this during investigations thanks to the amount of Title IX training administrators receive.

But survivors coming forward often want more than respect, compassion and transparency. They want accountability.

Lindsay Spaulding, community education program manager at the Sexual Assault Resource Center in Beaverton, has some ideas about why so many students are turning to Snapchat to come forward.

“Survivors aren’t necessarily getting the kind of justice they’re looking for through those reporting channels all the time,” Spaulding says, “and if you know you’re going to find that [justice] in your community rather than these traditional systems, you’re going to pursue that.” VERONICA BIANCO.