Nova Scotia

High school student speaks out about suspension after calling out rape-themed T-shirt

Kenzie Thornhill posted a photo of another student's 'rapey' T-shirt on social media. She was suspended for her actions, but the suspension was subsequently revoked.

'It’s more than a shirt, and that’s why this matters,' says 17-year-old Kenzie Thornhill

Kenzie Thornhill, a student at West Kings District High School, was briefly suspended after posting a photo of another student's shirt on social media. (Zoom)

A high school student in the Annapolis Valley who was suspended after posting a photo of another student's "rapey" T-shirt says the whole ordeal has taught her the importance of speaking out.

The shirt was printed with modified lyrics to the Christmas song Deck the Halls, including the line "'tis the season to be rapey."

"People are saying, 'It's just a shirt.' Well, it's more than a shirt, and that's why this matters.… Rape is not OK," said 17-year-old Kenzie Thornhill, a student at West Kings District High School.

"People are always gonna agree with you, and disagree, but it's time to make a change. It's time that we stop staying silent."

'Blew my mind'

Thornhill said: "It just blew my mind. I think I did what any teen would do, I snapped the photo and posted it on social media," adding she made sure to frame it in a way that made it impossible to identify the person in the photo.

Thornhill posted this photo to Snapchat, including a filter that shows the photo's location as West Kings District High School. She said she made sure the student was not identifiable in the photo. (Submitted by Kenzie Thornhill)

She showed the picture to a teacher and hall monitor, who told her it would be dealt with. Thornhill said as far as she knows the student was not disciplined, but told not to wear the shirt to school again.

Meanwhile, Thornhill received a five-day suspension.

The suspension has since been revoked and Thornhill was back in school on Friday. She was told the discipline will be removed from her permanent record, but wasn't given an apology or an explanation.

A statement posted on the Annapolis Valley Centre for Education's website confirmed the school had "revisited the decisions" related to discipline, but did not go into detail.

"We are having positive dialogue with students and staff on the issue of sexual violence.… We want all students to feel safe and supported," the statement said.

Thornhill said she's heard the school is taking steps to bring awareness to sexual violence, including having teachers read a letter to their classes.

"It sucks this had to go viral and all this stuff had to happen for that to happen, but if there is some sort of action and awareness being spread, I'm very proud of the school and the school board for doing that," she said.

Walkout in support

Before the decision was reversed, Thornhill's suspension prompted about 100 students from the school to walk out of class on Thursday in a show of support.

Students wore short skirts, spaghetti straps and other clothing that violated the dress code while holding up signs saying things like, "Enough is Enough" and "Rape is not a Joke." The event was covered by a number of local news outlets.

Thornhill said about 100 students took part in the walkout. (Submitted by Kenzie Thornhill)

Thornhill, who wasn't allowed on school grounds due to her suspension, cheered them on from across the street and said it was "amazing" and "overwhelming" to see.

After all the media attention, Thornhill said her phone is "blowing up 24/7" with messages of support from peers and strangers, as well as personal stories from sexual assault survivors.

"To have a stranger reach out to you and trust you with that sort of information, it's just amazing," she said.

Not everyone agrees with Thornhill's actions. Some have been trying to poke holes in her story or twist her words, but Thornhill said they're "completely missing the point."

'A teachable moment'

Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarsen, human rights activists and the co-founders of Persons Against Non-State Torture, called the ordeal a "missed opportunity" to have an open conversation with students about sexualized violence and why discussions around it are often silenced.

"This is a teachable moment. We can transform this into a very powerful message to young people and the students. No student needs to be suspended," Sarsen told CBC's Mainstreet on Friday.

During the walkout on Thursday, Thornhill cheered her classmates from across the street because she wasn't allowed on school grounds. (Submitted by Kenzie Thornhill)

"With education, his thought process could change. But suspension and secrecy is not going to get us out of sexualized violence."

Thornhill agrees this is a teachable moment, especially for the student who wore the T-shirt.

"It's so much more than just that kid wearing this shirt. It's not his fault he wasn't educated or doesn't know why it's wrong to wear something like that," she said.

"His life shouldn't be ruined for it, but what he did was wrong, and he needs to know that. He needs some type of consequence, but not harassment."

Linda MacDonald and Jeanne Sarson, co-founders of Persons Against Non-State Torture, wrote a letter to the school, saying it's important to have open conversation with students about sexualized violence. 12:02

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brooklyn Currie is a reporter and producer with CBC Nova Scotia. Get in touch with her on Twitter @brooklyncbc or by email at brooklyn.currie@cbc.ca

With files from CBC's Mainstreet

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