“Hello, my name is Kaitlin. Can I tell you about how I was suspended after reporting sexual harassment?”
Kaitlin addresses passersby with the kind of enthusiasm that comes when you have dug in your heels and are determined to fight back. As fifteen members of the Portland Solidarity Network(PDXSol) and supporters of Kaitlin stood in front of the Phagans School of Hair design, they handed out flyers telling the story of Kaitlin’s removal from school when she raised her voice about the experiences she had been having as a student.
Following her dream of becoming a hair stylist, Kaitlin enrolled in Phagans two years ago to complete their cosmetology degree program. Over the time she had there she was repeatedly forced to undergo sexual harassment, body shaming, and bullying from both faculty and other students. When she finally raised the issue to the compliance officer, she was denied to the ability to speak without the offending faculty in the room with her. She demanded that an investigation happen and that she be allowed to change campus locations so that she could finish her schooling. When she returned to see the investigation, it was barely a paragraph and they had simply interviewed a couple other students about their experiences. None of it seemed to take her victimization seriously, or delved any deeper into the claims that she had made. They then offered her a piece of paperwork that she was asked to sign if she wanted to be allowed to finish school. This absolved her of any legal rights to pursue her complaints, leaving her without any options. When she suggested that she might seek legal council, she was screamed at to the point of tears and made to leave.
This now left Kaitlin almost $25,000 in debt with only six weeks left of schooling, which she was not being allowed to complete.
Instead of moving on to another school, she decided to organize a campaign to put pressure on Phagans to let her in. She began with pickets at their Portland campus, and then contacted the Portland Solidarity Network about developing a campaign that could target the issues at play in her situation. Together, they organized a demand delivery, which laid out exactly what she was asking for. First, she wanted to have the extra fees dropped that were leveled against her when she went on maternity leave to give birth to her daughter. Second, to drop the extra “re-enrollment” fees that she would have to have to switch campuses since she never wanted to un-enroll in school in the first place. Third, to have the school follow their own policy on both complaints and sexual harassment, where a culture of unprofessionalism and interpersonal harassment between students and faculty was allowed to develop. And fourth, and most importantly, for Kaitlin to be allowed to finish the last weeks of her schooling at the campus of her choice. The demand delivery took place at Phagans’ Clackamas campus, which is the main office for the owner. Here the demands were read out loud with dozens of supporters in tow as Phagans staff yelled and harassed the protesters. Phagans was given seven days to respond, which they did and said that they would address the issue but threatened PDXSol about returning to their campuses. The next day the group returned to pass out informational flyers in front of the Portland campus, telling the story of Kaitlin’s harassment and expulsion from school.
Quickly after this action Phagans responded in full, with the owner sending Kaitlin a response conceding every single demand. They were going to drop all of the fees, address the sexual harassment and complaints concerns, and let Kaitlin finish school!
Negotiations between Phagans and Kaitlin needed to be scheduled, but during the course of this some new issues presented themselves. One was that the Department of Human Services had provided the finances for Kaitlin’s childcare while she was attending school. Since she was forced to un-enroll, they had dropped her daughter from their care and now would not re-admit her. This was critical since Kaitlin could not afford that $2,000 that the childcare would cost while she was finishing her coursework and practicals. Likewise, because of all this scheduling and work changes, she may need extra time to complete the final school process.
All of these issues were brought into negotiations with Phagans, where Kaitlin’s situation was brought directly to the owner. During the course of this, Phagans not only conceded every one of the original demands, but they also agreed to pay for the childcare personally if they could not get DHS to re-admit her daughter. They also had formally reprimanded the two faculty members that had been directly responsible for the sexual harassment. Additionally, Kaitlin is being allowed to form a student committee inside the school to work on confronting sexual harassment of students. She is going to be granted the ability to speak out to new students about their experiences, including about the need to speak up and organize.
This is one of the most complete victories that PDXSol has ever had, going far beyond just the demands that were leveled. The success of this campaign, which was the first student-led organizing in the history of PDXSol, attests to the power of people to stay committed and to have the courage to speak out. Kaitlin never allowed the repeated set backs to weaken her resolve to have the issue confronted, and was determined not only to have her personal issues addressed but to also change the culture of harassment she was seeing in the school.
What we can see here is a major step forward for organizing within solidarity networks as we head into student solidarity work. With the increasing number of “for-profit” trade schools in the United State, most of which who operate on federal student loan money yet without the kind of institutional protections you would find in a university, we are seeing that exploitation of students is increasing year after year. Because of the lack of institutional structures there was the ability for individual faculty to institute favoritism and abuse of students, but this loose institutional framework also provides us with advantages as it can make organizing more direct. PDXSol was allowed to confront those with decision-making abilities directly and could move up the chain of command quickly. It is here that organizing in the escalation-plan framework was especially useful, and we can see this extending to other cosmetology schools as well as for-profit colleges for things like massage therapy, repair services, computer administration, and real estate.
While this victory is a huge step forward, it has only strengthened the communities resolve to continue building towards movements that will confront workplace, tenant, and student exploitation with the kind of collective action that gets results. What happened at Phagans came from the organized response from both Kaitlin and the community, and we will not forget what it took to see this kind of injustice get overturned.
When we fight, we win!