Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Women’s group names student who spoke out against New Hanover schools as ‘Woman of the Year’

City Hall in Wilmington might be hundreds of miles from Washington D.C., but the effects of federal legislation can be felt right here at home (Port City Daily photo/MICHAEL PRAATS)
Women Organizing for Wilmington will honor former Hoggard High School student Sarah Johnson with its inaugural ‘Woman of the Year’ on the steps of City Hall this Friday. (Port City Daily photo / MICHAEL PRAATS)

WILMINGTON — The Women Organizing for Wilmington group will award their inaugural Woman of the Year to former Wilmington student Sarah Johnson today.

The ceremony for the group’s first award will honor former Hoggard student Sarah Johnson for speaking out against alleged failures by the New Hanover County Schools to protect her Title IX rights. These allegations have led to three separate federal investigations by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights into Title IX violations by the New Hanover County Schools.

According to WOW founding member Lynn Shoemaker, Johnson’s “bravery,” especially given her young age, made her the ideal candidate for WOW’s inaugural award.

“WOW!’s first Woman of the Year will go to Sarah Johnson, a young woman who exemplifies bravery and who has boldly blazed a path for other women, and most especially young women on campuses, to speak out. Miss Johnson has placed herself in the public as an empathetic advocate for all women. No woman is alone in this battle,” Shoemaker said.

WOW, which now has more than 1,800 members, was founded six years ago. The group plans to begin giving the Woman of the Year award annually, but for its first award Shoemaker said she wanted to acknowledge the #MeToo campaign.

In that spirit, WOW member Mary Martha Vaught said Johnson’s dedication to empowering other young women, especially students, were particularly resonant this year. Before graduating from Hoggard, Johnson said she feared other students would suffer the same harassment she described having endured after her sexual assault.

“Something horrible happened to me. But what the school did, and what they failed to do, re-victimized me every day, it compounded what I went through a thousand times. But the worst part, for me, is the other girls, who have been molested, who have been raped and assaulted, who have said nothing,” she said. “The girls who have had this happen to them and who have not come forward, and who say, ‘well, look what happened to you.’ That’s the worst … that’s the worst thing in the world.”

Women Organizing for Wilmington's 'Woman of the Year,' Sarah Johnson and her father, Randy Johnson.(Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Women Organizing for Wilmington’s ‘Woman of the Year,’ Sarah Johnson and her father, Randy Johnson.(Port City Daily photo / BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)

But despite Johnson’s own struggles, her willingness to publicly discuss her experiences with New Hanover County Schools has lead to changes in how the staff and administration deal with sexual assault, harassment, and Title IX enforcement. Johnson’s concern for her fellow students – and future students – made her stand out to Vaught.

“We feel that this was a young woman who felt she was being harassed and discriminated, and she spoke out. That was incredibly brave,” Vaught said. “I don’t feel that she’s a victim. She’s a champion. She’s been an advocate for herself, but more so she’s been an advocate for those who came after her.”

Representative Deb Butler, who will be speaking at the award ceremony, said she was proud to honor Sarah Johnson with the Woman of the Year Award.

“In my mind there are categories of bravery. Physical bravery is one thing, but when you are emotionally brave, especially at such a young age, and you lay your soul bare in order to help others even when people refuse to hear the truth, that is true bravery and speaks legions about the kind of person this young lady is,” Butler said.

Shoemaker said that, due to the inclement weather, the brief ceremony would be held on the steps of Wilmington City Hall, before moving to Bespoke Coffee & Dry Goods, located at 202 Princess Street.

According to Shoemaker, WOW is “over 1,800 women strong and growing.” For can find more information, including details on the group’s weekly protests, on Women Organizing for Wilmington’s Facebook page.

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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