Opinion | In defense of defense: ETHS policy, state law impedes woman’s right to safety


Illustration by Ellie Lind

Lara-Nour Walton, Staff Writer

Editor’s note:

The Evanstonian reached out to the Dean’s Office for a comment on the incident described in this opinion article. They replied “In this day & age all schools must take precautions in regards to weapons etc…being on school grounds.” They could not provide more details per school confidentiality laws that prevent staff and administrators from commenting on student-related information. However, the Dean’s Office did provide a four-page document emailed to The Evanstonian. The first page is a highlighted section of page 32 of ETHS’s “The Pilot: Student and Family Handbook” which indicates banned substances including, but not limited to,“mace, dog spray and pepper spray.” The last three pages are from Napoli Shkolnik PLLC Attorneys at Law titled “Tips for staying safe when walking alone at night.” The document is available here. The Evanstonian does not condone any students or minors carrying illegal items at ETHS or any ETHS events.

I was sequestered and silenced behind a chain link fence. This is not exactly how I wanted to spend the first football game of the season. While the rest of my friends congregated on the metal bleachers, I was stopped short at the bag check line- where my troubles began. 

My pepper spray had been my staunch protector on my frequent, after-dark commutes home from extracurricular activities. The aerosol’s encasement was kaleidoscopic and bedazzled which I loved because it camouflaged its true purpose.

Being a young woman in this world, I sense the dangers that threaten my existence. I know that every time I make the decision to walk outside at night, I am taking a risk: risking my safety, risking a violation of my body, risking my life. I can securely say this is not my fault (regardless of the length of my skirt or the cut of my blouse)… but because my reality is gendered. So, my mother, a Manhattan woman, a big city connoisseur, and once a young woman herself, equipped her daughter the best way she knew how: with a small bottle of pepper spray, to be used on a potential assailant, and no one else. 

You can imagine my shock as a male security guard rummaged through my backpack and confiscated my spray at the August 30th ETHS football game. I pleaded with the man who had taken my steadfast defender, listing the many reasons why I keep the aerosol with me at all times. He seemed wholly unsympathetic to my circumstances. Anger boiled in my belly as he continued to withhold the reasoning behind the seizure. Yet, I remained composed, understanding the constraints of protocol. I reasoned that this would soon be resolved. But, instead, I was apprehended by the dean, and taken into a white tent wherein I was threatened with suspension for bringing “a weapon” onto school property. 

Me, suspended? Ms. Bookworm. Ms. Law abiding, Ms. Level headed… I was gutted. 

Not only was I not allowed to attend the football game, but the integrity of my school record could soon be tarnished with a colossal misrepresentation of my intentions. 

The dean shepherded me to a plastic seat at the entrance of Lazier where Evanston policemen in bulletproof vests scrutinized me as if I were about to open fire. My concerned friends came  rushing over to check on me, but I was censored and moved to a place where I could no longer speak to anyone. In my dunce chair, feeling more like a pariah than I had ever before, I came to a realization: My bejeweled self defense spray was no weapon. No, it was my protection against the undeniable threats that exist beyond school property.

ETHS equates pepper spray to weapons akin to firearms and bans students from bringing such self defense mechanisms to school. This policy is consistent with Illinois state law that prohibits minors from purchasing, carrying, and using pepper spray. But my spray is simply not comparable to an AK-47. 

And because of that, ETHS policy and state law is a failure. It fails to address sexual violence. It fails to recognize the plight of so many women. And, that night, it failed me.

I would never intentionally break a law, nor would I choose to critique a school rule just because it landed me in trouble. I write now because it is the myopic nature of these policies that I find to be inherently problematic.

In my three years at ETHS, I and others have come and gone with pepper spray, albeit, completely unaware of the policy. Thankfully, I’ve never had to use it on anyone, but nonetheless was comforted by the sense of safety it provided me in the front pocket of my bag. In a troubling Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) statistic, it is reported that sexual violence occurs every 92 seconds in America… minors are included in that figure. With a statistic like that, I maintain that, until ETHS can guarantee my safety outside of campus, I will not feel safe making my way home without a means to defend myself. 

Holding my house keys between my knuckles as a form of protection cannot suffice. 

Was my outrage unfounded when my right to protection was compromised? Is my safety as an ETHS student on campus not tantamount to my safety off? Should I be punished with months of social probation and suspension? I think not. 

But, I guess that’s what happens when the woman’s always to blame.