Shorewood High School alumna Sophie Scherwenka posted a short video to her private Instagram account last week, but she didn’t do it to update her friends or show off an outfit or meal.
Scherwenka’s goal was to expose the prevalence of sexual assault and intimate partner violence in Shorewood, Wis.
Howell Raines of the New York Times said in 1979 that Shorewood was a "maple-studded town on Lake Michigan [that] dotes on its reputation as Milwaukee's most liberal suburb." Despite still being labeled a "liberal haven," with its board of trustees investing millions in affordable housing, Shorewood has now seen dozens of women follow Scherwenka’s lead by sharing their own stories of abuse. Many of them have come out with stories involving former high school athletes and the children of influential families within the small community.
Shorewood High School alumni point to fellow students, even friends, as the perpetrators.
“I had been seeing posts going around on social media about how to prevent sexual assault and how men can make women feel safer, but it all seemed to apply to hookups and with strangers,” Scherwenka said about the video she posted, in which she referred to individuals that committed assaults by name. “We never discuss how to deal with sexual abuse from people we care about and are in some type of relationship with. We excuse behaviors done by loved ones that we would never excuse from a stranger.”
The small Wisconsin village — with a population of 13,162 — has seen a serious pattern of abuse and sexual assault in recent years. In 2013, a maintenance technician at Shorewood High School was terminated after verbally assaulting a student. The official statement regarding Howard’s termination relied heavily on the student’s outfit.
“She was wearing shorts and a sleeveless top, an outfit which was not particularly modest, but which would not have caused a ‘material interference’ with school activities,” the official report stated.
The official statement places blame on the female student, stating that her outfit and demeanor encouraged the faculty member to make unwanted advances. Its official statement says that the student was more concerned with who the remarks were coming from, rather than the remarks themselves. The report also neglected to take into account the student’s actual words, feelings and expressions, and instead paraphrased her remarks.
Other alumni have shared similar experiences, citing aspects of the community that serve as a barrier to consent. Sara Kostic reflected on the lack of education she and her peers received regarding consent and advocacy, which led to her experiencing sexual assault at a party when she was just 15.
“He tried to put both his hands down the front of my pants, and I said no. His response to that was to instead put one hand down the back of my pants and one hand up my shirt,” she said. “I felt like I had already said no to something that made me even more uncomfortable, so I just didn’t really know how to say no to that. I thought maybe this is something I should be flattered by.”
The student and two of his friends coerced Kostic into drinking and then turned off the lights when she became too inebriated to stand up. He pulled her into a chair and began kissing her, and she passed out shortly after. Kostic didn’t realize till years later, after she had begun attending Oberlin College, going to consent training and seeing a therapist, that what had happened to her was wrong.
“There is definitely an interesting dynamic in part because of the size of the school and everyone knows everyone and then there are these people and these families that have more social capital or there are these athletes or popular friend groups and I feel like Shorewood prioritizes the wrong things,” Kostic stated. “Shorewood needs to prioritize consent.”
Women are statistically more likely to be sexually assaulted by someone they already know. However, in a study conducted by the Journal of Women’s Health, researchers found that women in small and rural areas reported the highest prevalence of intimate partner violence than women living in urban areas, with 22.5% for women in smaller communities compared to 15.5% for urban women.
Like Kostic, Shorewood High School alumna Nora Klein recounted her experience with sexual assault and intimate partner violence in the community, citing the lack of education around consent and sexual education as a main factor.
“So often we think of abuse as something that is really black and white,” Klein stated. “And that's not true. It's really hard as survivors to even admit to yourself that what happened [was] abuse … it's a lot easier to deny it. Then when you have gaslighting on top of it, as well as manipulation by abusers, it makes it really hard to admit to yourself that that's what happened.”
Klein also cited Scherwenka’s video as a motivating factor for her to come forward about her experience with intimate partner violence. While Klein was inspired to share her story after so many women had come before her, she also touched on how painful it can be to see so many women go through similar experiences.
“I have had some really debilitating side effects of what I experienced: nightmares, flashbacks, physical pain, sleep issues, emotional reactivity, dissociation, depersonalization, some very intense physical and mental health effects,” Klein said. “I know how hard that's been for me and thinking about how many women experienced this and we have to just push through it is heartbreaking because it shows the pervasiveness of the problem.”
The majority of interviewees for this piece recounted the lack of sexual education in the Shorewood School District as reasoning behind the miseducation of abusive patterns of many males within the community.
A research paper published by WomenNC details that providing students with comprehensive sexual education including information about sexual consent leads to students being more informed about what constitutes sexual assault. In addition, they become less tolerant of sexual violence.
On the other hand, consequences of a lack os sex education have been shown to include an increase in sexual violence, as well as sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies.
Kostic echoed her own concerns about the lack of education at Shorewood High School.
“I think that this school takes a very reductivist approach to consent and to sex in general,” Klein said. “I think sex education in general tries to simmer down what healthy relationships look like to something that is very simple. Relationships are formed by some of our earliest experiences and are formed by our relationships to our caregivers, to teachers, to our peers and our relationships to ourselves.”
In accordance with the pattern of abuse at Shorewood High School, an additional faculty member was terminated in 2018 due to sexual assault accusations. Teacher Matt Jones was terminated for sexually assaulting students with both mental and physical disabilities along with three faculty members, one of whom has testified she was under the influence, according to an article by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Shorewood School Board sent an email to parents regarding the recent accusations, however, they did not respond to a request for comment.
“We have learned about some social media activity occurring this past weekend in which former SHS graduates have posted testimonials regarding sexual assault, in some cases involving fellow former SHS graduates, and naming the individuals involved,” the email stated. “We are working to connect with and support our former students; however, we wanted you to be aware that this has occurred in case you hear or see your current students discussing these posts or expressing any new distress.”
Klein reflected on the notion that Shorewood as a community still sees itself as “liberal,” which they believe to be ‘good.’
Klein went on to suggest that Shorewood should take “a more holistic approach” when talking and teaching about consent, and could possibly create space for survivors “to tell their stories” of what interpersonal violence can look like and result in.
“When we place value on things that are not to have value placed on them, we stop ourselves from seeing the reality. And I think that in order to work through oppression, and to work through harm and to work through trauma, we have to face the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it is,” she said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with experiences with sexual assault or intimate partner violence, contact the national sexual assault hotline, located here.