Twenty months after he developed a crush, 18 months after he’d fallen in love, Diego, who is enormously appealing but also very canceled, boarded the bus with Jenni and Dave. They were going to the beach, and it wasn’t a big deal — except for the fact that pretty much all of Diego’s friends had dropped him, so, yeah, it was. The three, all 17, sat in a row of orange seats that ran the length of the bus, Diego’s eyes dark, goofy, and sad; his body freshly stretched to almost six feet; his oversize Carhartts ripped on skateboard ramps. This could have been in any American city this past January, on any bus. (First names in this article are pseudonyms.) Jenni kept her face tilted down toward her lap, hidden by a scrim of shoulder-length hair.
Then, a stop away from school, another high-school student boarded the bus. Just one more kid with a backpack in a hoodie, and at first Diego waved and Jenni smiled. Diego because he wanted to show he wasn’t scared, as this kid had thrown accelerant on a stupid mistake Diego had made, thus blown up Diego’s life. Jenni because she’s pragmatic enough to play along with social rules, plus this kid sat right in front of her in AP Statistics. But instead of waving and smiling back, this boy just stared, his eyes flat and certain. Jenni began to hyperventilate.
When, the month prior, Jenni first befriended Diego, he tried to warn her: You really don’t want to be canceled. It sucks. No one looked at him during the day at school. His teachers marked him present, then sent him to study by himself in the library because kids changed seats if he sat next to them in class. Diego no longer wanted to get out of bed. But he had talked to Jenni at the climbing gym, where he’d started going after the skate parks filled up with “opps” — kids who hated him. She noticed that Diego was surprisingly sweet and funny given how much his life had turned to shit.
She also asked him what had happened, which almost nobody did. She decided hanging out with Diego was okay.
This okay did involve putting a jacket over her head when she rode in Diego’s car near school. But it was too late to hide now. After the kid got off at his stop, he took a picture of Jenni through the bus window. Jenni started crying.
Later that night, Jenni, whom Diego described as “a solid, solid woman,” tried to do some damage control because, as she explained, if you get an Instagram post about you, your life is over. “I know what this looks like …,” she texted the boy. For months now, he had played the role of self-appointed enforcer. In Statistics class, he’d announced, “There are not many people that I would bash in the head with a hammer. Diego is one of them.”
“I was on the way to the beach,” Jenni wrote. “And I saw Dave, who I know.”
Dave attended a different school, but he was such a good wingman — his earnestness was so disarming, his golden curls fell so adorably into his eyes — that everyone, boys and girls alike, was at least a little smitten with him. Dave was the one friend of Diego’s who had never disappeared. “It never even crossed my mind, like, Am I able to handle this?” Dave said. “Diego is like my brother.” Still, he kept their friendship quiet — which is to say he didn’t post pictures with Diego on Instagram. That seemed to appease his peers.
The boy from the bus left Jenni’s message on read overnight, meaning he’d seen it and not responded, a very bad sign. In the morning, he wrote back, “Yeah, I know Dave, too, but I don’t go sit with him and Diego.”
Jenni wrote again: “I’m friends with Dave and I can’t help it.” She wasn’t involved in the situation, she explained, and she didn’t plan to be. Still, the day after the bus ride, the enforcer turned around in Statistics and said as a threat, “Fuck Diego. I love cancel culture. If you were to cancel anyone, who would you cancel?”
This nightmare began sweetly. Diego — fan of Nivea deodorant, Air Jordans, and Taylor Swift; dragged on annual camping trips by his parents; his father white, his mother is not; 8.5-by-11-inch prints of every school photo of him and his sister hanging in his family’s upstairs hall — started high school and met a girl. They dated for a month. (According to Diego, this doesn’t really count.) They broke up. He spent a lot of the next year hanging out in skate parks, learning to do frontside 360s. Summer after their sophomore year, the two started going out again. Fiona was Diego’s first real girlfriend, and she was almost psychedelically beautiful: pale, celestial skin, a whole galaxy of freckles, a supernova of lush hair. This made everything, even the pandemic, okay. Diego would do online school and skate and hang out with Fiona. Sometimes she broke plans with Diego to go on hikes with her parents, which Diego’s mother loved. He said, “I know, Mom!” when his mother reminded him to ask for consent.
Then, in the middle of last summer, Diego went to a party. He got drunk and — Diego really fucked up here: Everybody, including Diego, agrees on that, so please consider setting aside judgment for a moment — showed a nude of his beautiful girlfriend to a few kids there.
Three weeks later, school started — senior year, finally back in person after 18 months at home, woo-hoo. Within days, teachers and administrators started noticing that the ninth- and tenth-graders were acting like middle schoolers — wrestling, invading one another’s personal space. “It was really clear a lot of them hadn’t been in school since seventh grade,” said the principal, who had held her job for only seven months before the pandemic closed in-person classrooms. Juniors and seniors, she noticed, also had “big gaps” in the skills they’d need “to navigate complexity” and “a very low tolerance for relational discomfort.”
Everyone seemed scared of each other’s bodies and breathing and out of touch with each other’s boundaries. Soon students started streaming into the glass-fronted administrative offices asking school staff to intervene in their relationships with one another, saying they felt unsafe. Students also wanted their administrators — the principal and the two vice-principals, all young women who led with a big-sister, let-me-make-you-a-cup-of-tea vibe — to investigate interpersonal incidents from years prior, stuff that no longer felt right after 18 months stuck at home.
Yaretzi, a young woman in Diego’s grade with walnut skin and a gentle voice that masked her intense focus, started attending school-board meetings on Zoom and speaking up during public comment about how disregarded students felt by the way the district handled sexual harassment and assault. “We were given the space and a lot of time,” she said, half-joking, “to reflect on why that kind of behavior was tolerated at school.” No way was she just slipping back.
This was a common pattern: the isolation of the pandemic producing both pain and insight, followed by a need to assert new power dynamics as people gathered up the shards of their social lives and tried to reassemble them. Diego’s school began working up a curriculum on harassment, a “tier-one intervention,” as one of the vice-principals called it, meaning the whole community needed help.
Two and a half weeks into the school year, a friend of Diego’s approached him between classes. He was like, “Yo, I heard this kid was walking around bragging that he was gonna tell your girlfriend that you showed some random dude her nude.”
Diego was like, “Broooo, what?”
Then the kid did.
Fiona dumped him, which, frankly, good for her. She felt humiliated, betrayed, and startled that someone she trusted so much respected her privacy so little. “I had put so much care into our relationship,” she told me. “Then I got screwed over.”
Diego offered Fiona a raft of apologies — “ ‘I’m so sorry, I’ll never do that again,’ that kind of thing,” Fiona said. He then holed up in his bedroom, ashamed, heartbroken, and furious with himself. He started writing songs with bald lyrics: “It’s all my fault / I hate me for that / And I’ll do anything to get you back … / You’re beautiful and perfect / I’m sorry.”
Over the course of the next three days, everyone in Diego’s old friend group stopped talking to him, which he didn’t really notice at first because he was too disgusted with himself to pay much attention. But by the following week, most of the other students in his grade had stopped talking to him as well. Diego’s parents reached out to the principal for the first time on October 4, 2021, to alert her that students were broadcasting their son’s “errors” and telling kids throughout the school that Diego was an abuser and if they remained friends with him, they’d be condoning rape culture. The principal, who was still planning the anti-harassment summit for November, did not respond.
A vice-principal walked Fiona through how to file a Title IX complaint. Title IX established a quasi-legal protocol meant to protect students’ right to access public education without discrimination or harassment. Every public school is required to have a Title IX coordinator. The principal and a vice-principal both held this job at Diego’s school. (“There was so much to share this year!” the vice-principal said.) In terms of securing equal access to school sports, Title IX works well. But with regard to preventing harassment in high schools? The regulation is a sieve, a piece of ed code, the vice-principal admitted, that is “not really written to protect students” but instead “revolves around protecting district and school from liability.” The result is a law that both does a poor job of stopping harassment and leaves students feeling ignored and enraged. “Students come in saying, ‘I feel harmed and uncomfortable and sometimes unsafe,’ ” the vice-principal told me. What Title IX mandates from there is that the students fill out a form. That form is sent to lawyers at the school district’s Office of Equity. A verdict comes back in legalese. The lack of shared vocabulary between students and the adults meant to protect them created an added layer of hurt. “Assault has a very specific meaning in the ed code,” the vice-principal said. “So sometimes difficult conversations arise when we say, ‘I acknowledge you feel uncomfortable and unsafe, and we should attend to that. This wasn’t assault.’ ”
Through the end of October, Diego remained heartbroken and depressed. While half his school canceling him seemed a bit much, he hated himself too. He spent a lot of time alone with his pet rat, Toe (named because he didn’t like the rat at first, but she grew on him), sitting under his lofted bunk bed, composing music on his mini Korg synth-vocoder, staring at the haute-adolescent mash-up on his walls: family water-park photos, concert-ticket stubs, Junior Ranger pins earned at national parks.
He also wrote Fiona a letter, but it was too much “pleading love letter” for her taste, too little “straightforward apology.” Besides, she thought, he’d brought this extended exile upon himself. He’d acted like a jerk that past summer, partying a lot, even breaking up with her for a bit. That had left Fiona feeling, she said, like “this person patiently waiting for him to come back, when he seemed he couldn’t care less about how I felt.”
Diego’s father, a high-school teacher in a different town, took the day off work one day in early November to try to dig his son out of his dark hole.
That same morning, posters with blood-red lettering that read GET ABUSERS OFF CAMPUS started appearing around school. “I just got really fed up,” Yaretzi, who made them, said. “My friend had called me to tell me about how her abuser wasn’t being held accountable after multiple reports were made about him.” She’d heard this from other friends too. “I printed like 60 posters in an hour and ran around the school and slapped them on the walls.” She herself had suffered through the fear and humiliation of sexual abuse, but her abuser did not go to the school — a “privilege,” she said, in that this made her worry less about retaliation. Yet she saw how girls on her campus felt more unsafe than ever. So she taped the posters up in the long, locker-lined hallways, in the bright stairwells, in the girls’ bathrooms, in front of the fishbowl of an office where the administrative staff worked.
That afternoon, around five, administrators learned students were planning a walkout the next day over the school’s handling of sexual misconduct. They also found a list on the girls’-bathroom wall labeled PEOPLE TO LOOK OUT FOR. Scrawled on the off-white tile in black Sharpie were seven names. DIEGO was one.
The list caught Yaretzi by surprise. “On my way home from school, I started getting calls,” she told me. “I’m like, ‘What the hell list are you talking about?’ ” Her intent was to lay blame at the feet of the school district, not specific young men.
Administrators phoned the parents of all the students named to tell them about the list and the walkout, which immediately got paired in everybody’s mind. School staff also locked the girls’ bathroom and repainted the wall, but it hardly mattered. Photos were already bouncing around social media, accompanied by tags like “stay safe please look out for these people” and “I wanna add [names] to this list.”
It was also Diego’s mother’s birthday. When a vice-principal reached her, she was heading to meet her husband and Diego, along with a friend, for dinner. She pulled her husband aside to alert him, then they limped through the meal for the friend’s sake. Afterward, Diego’s parents sat him down.
“This is serious. I don’t want any surprises,” his father said. Diego laid out the facts: drunk at a party, showed the nude. His mother was relieved he hadn’t done something worse. His father was pissed.
“It was not good, actually really terrible,” he told me. “It’s embarrassing as a parent. You thought you raised your kid differently. You wish you had done things better.” Diego’s father was upset with himself, upset with Diego. He wanted his son held accountable, though he wasn’t sure what that looked like yet.
At 11:39 p.m., Diego’s mother wrote an email to the school:
Subject: My Son Is Not a Rapist.
This situation with my son has gotten out of control and needs to be stopped. I’ll be heading to campus tomorrow with my son to help him file a Title IX Violation for those “Spreading a series of sexual rumors about a peer.”
Early the next morning — the morning of the walkout — a classmate texted Diego and said, “Bro, you shouldn’t come to school today.”
On campus, from the moment students arrived, administrators tried to stay on top of the situation, but even the simple task of keeping the bathroom walls clean felt exhausting and futile. Lists went up; administrators scrubbed them down. Lists went up again, not always with the same names. Nearly 20 students (not even the principal knows the full count for sure) were named in all. “People would put names on the wall and then other people would cross off names. And then people would write on the wall, like, ‘How dare you take that name off’ and ‘You don’t know the story,’ ” the principal told me. Fiona herself did not write Diego’s name. The principal’s whole focus became “How do we stop the bleeding?” As she saw it, “students are acting as judge, jury, and executioner for other students.”
At 10:30 a.m., 500 kids walked out of class, many dressed in red, as the organizers, most of whom were girls and queer people of color, had urged. Some had red-inked NO ABUSERS ON CAMPUS signs taped to their bodies. Others had written in pen on their skin: MAKE SCHOOL SAFE on an arm, I AM A SURVIVOR along collarbones. In the quad, Yaretzi led the crowd in ten minutes of silence to honor survivors. Then everybody walked up to the parking lot for speeches. Students punctuated these by banging on drums and rattling keys. They chanted “No abusers on campus!” and “Fuck admin!”
“I have been here for four years,” one of the organizers told a local newspaper reporter. “I’ve walked people, hand in hand, up to the office to go report their assault, and a lot of times, they were turned away or they said, ‘Okay, here’s a piece of paper, fill out this report, and talk about what happened to you.’ ”
“There are known abusers in that crowd right now,” Yaretzi added in that same interview. “There’s so much protection for the abusers rather than the victims. We’re just sick and tired of it.”
“It was a wild day, a wild day,” the principal told me in her office, choking up, her back to the treadmill desk she had started using to ease her stress. “I’m having a hard time talking about it even now.” She had students screaming, the calls for systemic change wrapped up in very public accusations against specific young men, a disturbingly high percentage of whom were boys of color, almost none of whom she knew anything about. She had a whole student body aching, telling her to fuck off. Just two weeks before, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and Children’s Hospital Association had jointly declared a state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.
In the popular imagination, the evolution of the crimes of the boys on the wall was rapid and steep. “You’re an abuser” quickly morphed into “You’re an assaulter,” which soon turned into “You’re a rapist.” The truth, according to Jenni, was most people didn’t actually care what they’d done. “Someone goes, ‘Oh my God, I heard he’s a bad person — don’t talk to him.’ And then people are scared to be on the wrong side. So they just do it. They don’t think about it. They’re just like, ‘Oh, I don’t know him, so I guess I won’t talk to him.’ ”
The unifying rally cry on campus was “We’re not safe here.” Even for students who’d never felt that way themselves, “suddenly there was a very compelling narrative to buy into,” the principal said. “There was a lot of social capital and relational capital to be found suddenly — I don’t wanna say it was a lie — in understanding your own experience within the context of this narrative.” That story line rested on the idea that the administration failed to do its most basic job. Parents started emailing the principal, asking if students were getting raped on campus.
This was not just Diego’s school. This was all over the country. A boy touched a girl’s waist without consent at a Spirit Week rally — shunned by his community and called a sexual abuser. A student accused a boy of touching her at a school dance — major investigation, lawyers on all sides. A student outed by the friend of a girl he tried to feel up after she reciprocated his affections while cuddling and holding hands — threats on social media, thoughts of taking his own life.
The case of Kathleen Kurtz and Robert Straub v. Lewisburg School District, in the Middle District of Pennsylvania, reads like a horror story in the form of a civil-action complaint. The plaintiffs were parents of a 14-year-old boy, Minor JX. In November 2020, classmates at school started calling JX a “rapist, pedophile, and child molester,” according to the complaint, and encouraged other students to do the same. Then, on March 19, 2021, a girl at his school made an anonymous report to ChildLine, the State of Pennsylvania’s child-abuse hotline, accusing JX of being a rapist. When a classmate was asked what JX had done, another girl said, “You know what you did, JX,” and refused to elaborate. JX started begging his parents to let him skip school. His parents sent a letter to the school principal:
JX is a sensitive soul and we fear this is damaging to his confidence at a very crucial time in his life where he is building his own Self-worth.
These horrific verbal attacks he is undergoing can make or break what kind of human he becomes.
The local police investigated the ChildLine call. As the complaint reads, “the allegations were entirely fabricated.” Still, the bullying continued. “JX’s Mother reported that, given the ongoing bullying and name-calling from November 2020 to the present, the School was no longer an emotionally safe place for JX to be educated,” the complaint reads. He told his parents “his life was so bad right now that he can’t see how it can get better anytime soon.” JX’s parents sued under Title IX. The judge tossed the case, explaining the facts failed to prove JX’s harassment was based on his sex.
At Oakland School for the Arts, vigilantism drew the attention of the NAACP. Before the pandemic, a group of students had been swapping nude images of female classmates. The administration disciplined the ringleader, but many felt his punishment was light. Then, while stuck at home for remote learning, some students formed a group chat to share experiences of sexual abuse and harassment and frustrations with reporting them to the school. They requested a Zoom meeting with the dean about how to make the campus feel safer. But the meeting was a disaster, two of the students told me. The dean wanted to talk about vaping, not sexual misconduct, and the students were incensed. “It’s hard to have somebody not necessarily believe you, but it’s even harder when it’s like somebody should be really concerned about you,” one of the students said. The group chat organized itself into the Student Safety Committee and in late September planned a walkout and rally in a park across the street from the school. The event devolved. While students, primarily women of color, shared their personal stories of sexual violence up front, students in the crowd screamed at specific boys, most of whom were Black: “Rapist!” “You need to go die in the ditch.”
The rally ended early, one of the organizers told me, after a school administrator approached her. “He was crying and was like, ‘You’ve got to shut this down,’ ” she said. “We don’t have the mental-health support for this.”
The organizers spent the next day in the school administrators’ office. “It was just, like, a horrible experience,” one said. “It was like talking in circles or like talking to a wall.” Parents of accused boys showed up as well.
“How are you going to put that genie back in the bottle?” a Black woman whose sons were called rapists asked the dean. She had no doubt that the girls who had singled out her sons had experienced real pain. “I’m not saying that they’re not harmed,” she said. “What I’m saying is that hurt people hurt.” No individual had accused either of her sons of any specific abuse or crime.
In the weeks and months that followed, parents and grandparents began showing up at Oakland School for the Arts board meetings, saying they were scared to send their children to school because of all the sexual violence. Families of the accused boys reached out to the local NAACP chapter to talk about consolidating a case. Parents told Black children about the Central Park Five. “This can ruin your life simply because she says so … The school empowered a group of teenage young ladies, little mini-Karens,” one of the mothers said. Another mother told me her son struggled with returning to a place where everyone thought he was a rapist. “To survive every day, going to school like that,” she said, “having to prove he’s worthy, a good person, when he feels like he’s going to a school of hundreds of kids who think otherwise?”
Oakland School for the Arts eventually sent a letter to the school community acknowledging that most of the “allegations of sexual assault against a number of predominantly African American boys” were “either not backed by evidence, unfounded, or in some instances a result of mistaken identity or assumed guilt by association” and that the community had real healing and soul-searching to do.
On November 4, Diego lost his job with a youth organization in town. “You suspended my son due to graffiti on the wall that you saw on Social Media?” Diego’s mother wrote to his bosses. “NOT ONE person has accused my son of sexual assault.”
One of the bosses wrote back that she was “not in a position to say that Diego has sexually harassed or assaulted anyone,” but the truth was not the issue. Other kids in the program, which was entirely online, now said they felt unsafe with Diego. The program had to distance itself from him “based on the fact that this has gone very public and has compromised the way participants feel and/or interact.”
The Title IX claim about Diego ended up with the incident being declared outside the school’s purview. The vice-principal told Fiona she could file a police report. She didn’t want to do that. (Diego had not disseminated the photo.) In communication with her family, however, the school made a plan to help Diego and Fiona repair. Fiona’s family, the vice-principal wrote in an email to Diego’s, made two requests:
1. That all pictures are deleted from every possible device, cloud, storage/media platform, etc.
2. That it be made clear to Diego and his family that this was a serious violation that is having an impact on the student’s overall well-being.
Done and done. As individuals, at the beginning, the two had managed this incident okay. Fiona had no interest in getting back together. But a couple of weeks after their breakup, when Diego was still eating only a handful of peanut-butter pretzels a day, they’d met at the beach and talked. “I was like, ‘I don’t appreciate getting treated like an abuser,’ ” Diego said. “And she’s like, ‘I don’t think you’re an abuser at all. I know that.’ ” But this had grown way beyond them.
The public conversation recast Fiona’s view of Diego’s actions in a worse light. She was mortified knowing that every time people thought about Diego now, they thought about her nude photo. Still, she felt validated and supported by the list. After the clinical and pointless Title IX claim, “it was refreshing to know that, like, Wow, someone else is standing up for me,” she said. “Someone does care about my story.”
Everyone hoped that after Thanksgiving break Diego would feel comfortable returning to school. That didn’t happen. Other boys whose names had been on the list were doing horribly too. One had hitchhiked away from home earlier in the year after his ex-girlfriend called his mother one morning to tell her she was going to cancel her son that day. Then she did. He returned a day later at the ex-girlfriend’s urging. (“They couldn’t stay away from each other,” his mother said. “She didn’t want him to leave.”) But being in a town where everybody shunned him, except for the person primarily responsible for that shunning, was just too painful. His mother stayed up all night with him so that he didn’t slip into the bathtub with a kitchen knife. Then he ran away again.
Yaretzi tried to keep the focus on systemic change. One simple ask, which Fiona would have appreciated, too: more counseling support to complement the reporting process. Yaretzi spoke with the superintendent and the Office of Equity, pleading with them to, at a minimum, connect students with outside mental-health resources. “They’re like, ‘Well, what would you propose?’ ” she told me they said right after she made her pitch. “And then I just started laughing. I was like, ‘I just told you what I proposed!’ I mentioned the possibility of a Linktree. Have you ever seen a Linktree? It would take ten minutes and cost zero dollars.”
A scarcity mind-set — not just in terms of money but in terms of care, morality, and protection — set in. Students kept coming into the principal’s and vice-principals’ offices “upset over the fact that in the days after the protests, the school helped create safety-and-support plans for some of our male-identifying students who have been named,” the principal said. “And our female students saw that as ‘Who are you protecting? Whose narrative is more important to you? Who do you believe?’ ”
For instance, the school put Diego on independent study for the month of November. “The guy who caused a lot of pain to me now gets kind of like a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE card?” Fiona asked. Shouldn’t there be “something offered in the other direction?” (The school did offer her a safety-and-support plan, but she declined because she didn’t share any classes with Diego.) Meanwhile, some of the families of accused students had started deploying what has become the standard legal tactic in the Me Too backlash, displayed most publicly at the Depp-Heard trial: going on the offensive. The families demanded disciplinary action against the students shunning their sons. “But I can’t make your kids be friends,” the vice-principal told those parents. “I can’t stop kids whispering and laughing when your kid walks into the classroom.”
In the worldview that set in, being kind to a canceled kid is all downside. If you’re kind, you’re an apologist, then you too will be shunned. As another canceled kid told me, he’d really tried to press his ex-friends on why they ostracized him, but there was no point. “They were like, ‘You know why.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know why.’ And they’re like, ‘You know why.’ And then I just ended up leaving because how can you argue with that?”
The school’s official protocol on how to deal with ruptured relationships was to use restorative practices. This usually meant a facilitated conversation among the people directly involved, with the goal of creating empathy and coaxing kids out of angel/devil, black-and-white thinking. But Diego’s school had a countervailing policy: You couldn’t use restorative practices in cases of sexual misconduct. You also couldn’t make anyone participate in restorative practices. Given that the students existed in a universe where just talking with an alleged abuser made you an apologist — where you could lose all your social capital simply for suggesting that someone might deserve compassion — who would agree to restore?
It was an impossible situation, a whole world supersaturated with emotion, starved for common ground and facts. The school tried to get the stalled anti-harassment training back on course, but the advocacy group it had hired to run the workshop declined. “This is not the time for us to come,” its representatives said. “People need an open mind to learn.”
Diego barely ate for weeks. He slept 12 hours a night. He wrote bad poems. He stared at the pink Post-it note he had put in his phone case:
— Compliment people always
— be kind and respectful to everyone regardless of previous encounters
— be generous
— Not wish for more or better
— Think before acting
— “He who is not satisfied with what he has will not be satisfied with what he would like to have”
— don’t talk shit ever
What else did he do? “Cry? I don’t know,” he said. Eventually, he agreed to go with Dave to Dave’s family’s cabin for the weekend. On the way there, they stopped at a taco truck. Diego said, “Bro, I’m not hungry.” But Dave made him order three tacos anyway and stood there while he ate.
Diego’s parents kept pressing the school to do something, to at least use restorative practices with Diego and the students threatening their peers with social ostracization if they talked to him. Yet on December 2, 2021, the vice-principal sent an email explaining to Diego’s parents that a restorative circle was not going to happen. Those students canceling him, she wrote, “have no personal ill-will toward Diego but that the social pressures on them are so great that to be associated with Diego would cause too much harm for them.” She also said she’d reached out to “their peer groups, teachers, or classes but they believe these interventions would cause more conflict (at least at this point).” So that was that.
The bullying and harassment complaint that Diego’s parents had filed in November was closed on December 17. The outcome letter acknowledged “that the situation” — which in this case referred to Diego’s cancellation — was indeed “both severe and pervasive” and, as such, violated the district’s bullying-and-harassment policy. To remediate this, the letter continued, school officials had counseled the offending “students to stop that behavior.” Yet in a tacit admission that this made no difference, Diego now would be excused to eat lunch early and leave campus early so he could avoid interacting with other students. His teachers would also excuse him from class because they couldn’t stop the bullying.
Over Christmas break, Diego’s sister, two years older, came home from college. The whole family got in the car, as they did every year, to chop down a Christmas tree.
Diego’s sister had made the best of shelter-in-place, which she’d spent in her apartment near school — she pulled through all her STEM courses. She even earned a commercial driver’s license and now worked as a public-bus driver. Diego’s friends used to tell him they were jealous of how close he was to her. Now her politics, according to Diego, involved spending a lot of time on Twitter and, according to her dad, thinking he was a privileged white guy with a beard. He’d taken to saying to her, “Key word: Nuance!”
Diego drove the family car to the Christmas-tree farm. On the way, his sister called him a bad driver. He told her to shut up. She then said, “Abusers deserve to be canceled.” Like virtually all young people in their town, she’d seen the image of her brother’s name on the school-bathroom wall, posted and reposted many times.
Diego: “Bruh, that was a little out of pocket. Get the fuck out.”
Sister: “Oh my God, I don’t want you in my life anymore.” Everyone started crying. Their parents kicked her out of the car and told her to find her way home.
New Year’s came. Then February. The experience kept rooting in the dark rut of its own logic. A kid spat on Diego in a stairwell. (It wasn’t clearly caught on security video, so no one took disciplinary action.) Diego’s mother started losing her own friends. (“There are levels of abuse, you know,” they’d tell her. “You don’t know what your son did.”) She started making Diego drive her to work to get him out the door to school. But he often drove to school and just sat in the car. His whole day was working by himself in the library anyway. Why enter the building at all? On occasion, he’d see other boys in the library whose names had been on the wall, and they’d sit together. But mostly he felt invisible.
Race remained a topic almost too toxic for the school to touch. “You are telling us that most of the boys that were accused were Black and brown students, and all of the kids who are canceled are brown or Black, and the white boys were able to walk back on the campus, no problem,” Diego’s mother said to the principal. “And yet you’re not telling these white kids this? That’s called white fragility and being afraid of these girls.”
A reprieve finally came in February, when Diego and Dave traveled to the South on a trip organized through Sojourn Project, a social-justice nonprofit that takes groups of students to places like Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham to learn about the modern civil-rights movement. It felt so good to be in a different place with different kids, tune in to the arc of history, focus on justice with a capital J. They talked a lot about how people use and respond to negative power. Diego described the trip as “one big therapy session.”
The universe snapped back into perspective for a moment. Diego had fucked up and hurt someone; people had ostracized him. That wasn’t the whole world. But the good feelings did not last long. Emboldened from their travels, Dave and Diego posted trip pictures together on Instagram: the two of them goofing off on buses; Dave, smiling, his body held up parallel to the ground by Diego and a pack of kids. This got Dave fully canceled. Within two weeks, he, too, was eating lunch out of his car, thinking about an MLK quote he had learned in the South and half-remembered now: “It was something like, ‘It’s not about what will happen to me if I help this someone,’ ” he said. “ ‘It’s about what happens if I don’t help them.’ ”
“When we’re home,” Dave said, “I feel like we’re in a bubble of hate.”
By this point, the guardians of the social order had changed. “Boys are worse, I’m not going to lie,” Diego said. “Guys just want to feel powerful, and they feel entitled to be mean to other people.” And they really didn’t want the girls to think they stood with abusers.
“My friend Ethan — I mean, my previous friend,” Dave said. “I have three classes with him. And he made it clear. Like, ‘I miss you. It’s just, like, this situation is so dumb, I just can’t hang out with you.’ ”
Dave tried to get his school to help. He approached “the counselor, dean person, I forget what she is, really,” he told me. “She said, ‘Canceling is very new to me, and it’s a very hard thing to deal with.’ ” He asked if she could set up a restorative conversation. “And she said, ‘Well, I can ask, but I can’t force them to do it.’ And so she asked and they said no.”
Reason and control felt like distant concepts. Diego and his sister pretended the fight had never happened the next time she came home, but Jenni was still putting a jacket over her head when she rode in Diego’s car. “I feel bad for putting my reputation before my friend,” she said. “But, ummm …” A boy threatened to beat up Diego while he was visiting Dave at school. Diego’s father thought about going over to this boy’s family’s house because the school district, obviously, was not going to intervene. Everybody was exhausted. Diego’s principal had decided to quit.
The absurdity of the situation caused something in Diego to crack, and that release allowed for new clarity: You’re only canceled if you’re trying to hang out with the people refusing to associate with you. The rest of the world doesn’t know — and probably doesn’t care. Diego and Dave started taking the bus to the beach on Friday nights and talking to anybody who looked their age. “Everyone I met, I was like, ‘By the way, this is what is happening at my school right now,’ ” Diego said. “ ‘It’s better to hear it from me than from some kid: ‘He’s a certified abuser. Oh my God.’ ” But almost no one met his disclosure with much besides sympathy. “They were all like, ‘Don’t worry, bro. You’ll get through it.’ ” Or: “ ‘Your school is wack as hell.’ ”
Let’s just come out and say it: It’s a horrifying time to be a young woman. The world is burning and bleeding out. Adults are not fixing it. Teenage girls are poised to have fewer rights over their own bodies than their mothers had. The sane response — the awake, healthy, non-nihilistic response — is to feel panicked, frantic, hung out to dry, devalued, and unsafe. Who are they supposed to believe is looking out for them: the schools? The courts? Elected officials? Will anything get done to make the world better if they don’t do it themselves? So we can ask, “How is this mob justice possible?,” and leave it there. Or we can ask, “What happened to this cohort to unleash what Northwestern legal scholar Deborah Tuerkheimer described as ‘a primal scream’?” — a scream that conveys in its raw, messy, full-of-collateral-damages way that “we don’t trust our institutions, we’ve been betrayed by our institutions, and so all that’s left for us is to do this.”
The principal at Diego’s school had not just quit her post; she was considering leaving education. “I have a lot of love and empathy for people who are trying to run schools and work in schools right now,” she said. How was anybody supposed to hold teenagers together through this? The mental-health crisis? The country’s convulsions around race and misogyny? The threats to democracy? The school shootings where adults in bulletproof vests stay in the hall while kids whose classmates are dying cower under desks and call 911?
Six weeks before the end of the year, students at Diego’s school taped up posters again: WALKOUT TO GET RAPE CULTURE OUT! THIS ISSUE IS STILL HERE — AND SO WE! On April 15, 75 kids left their classrooms and gathered in the concrete quad. Diego stayed home from school that day. The principal was on vacation. The tribal, exorcistic energy of the fall walkout had burned off. The agenda included a teach-in on Title IX and how to work through school-district bureaucracy. How can students exercise their rights if they don’t even know what they are?
Yaretzi was clear-eyed about how the year had unfolded. She’d raised awareness and created social cohesion more than she’d fixed anything. “I’m gonna be so honest with you,” she said. “I’m so sick of the walkouts. They are calls to attention, but they aren’t effective when it comes to long-lasting change.” The list on the wall had derailed her efforts for real change too. Nobody wanted their name attached to this admission, because parents had threatened organizers with lawsuits, but students acknowledged that some on the list were falsely accused. The whole thing was a distraction, counterproductive, pulling focus away from the school district’s failings. This is not to say everyone was innocent — they weren’t. Students at Diego’s school were sexually harassed and harmed. Yet this is also true: “Rather than, like, the actual perpetrators, a lot of names put on that list were just random people,” a student told me. Classmates wrote them “out of anger and pure emotion.” This made the act reckless and destructive but not meaningless. “We need to look,” the student said, “at why those emotions are there.”
A few weeks later, Diego decided to attend his prom. He bought a black suit for $79 at H&M, pulled on fancy white sneakers, and took a girl with cupid’s-bow lips who lived in a town 45 minutes away. “It was like a Disney movie,” Diego said. So much buildup, “hella drama.” While there, a student pulled his date aside to tell her that Diego was an assaulter. “We had fun after we left,” he said.
The school hadn’t healed. The vice-principal announced she was quitting too. So was the principal at Dave’s school. Fiona rejected the narrative that Diego was canceled. That made it sound, she thought, like other people had done something to him. Time had caused her view of Diego’s actions to harden, not soften. She didn’t think he deserved to be friendless. “I guess it is harmful when people are jumping on the bandwagon,” she said. But his behavior had really hurt her. In hindsight, maybe he was emotionally abusive? Was it wrong to warn other students to stay away from him?
One morning in May, after sleeping late — because why hurry to get to a class you’re not going to attend? — Diego sat alone in the library in his ripped Carhartts listening to songs he’d written over the past nine months for his final capstone project: a presentation for his teacher “on the emotional roller coaster I went on this year.” He played all the instruments, wrote all the lyrics, sang all the vocal tracks, one song after another about love and regret: “I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful as you.” “I really shouldn’t have done that / It was asinine of me.” “It’s all my fault.” “My frail heart has crumbled — no one has seen it / Your incandescent glow could help me find all the pieces.”
A girl walked up and said hello. “She’s canceled too,” Diego said. That girl’s boyfriend’s name, he explained, had been on the bathroom wall, and she didn’t break up with him. It later came out that his name had been written entirely by mistake. His accuser meant a different kid with the same first name. But it didn’t matter. The photo spread. The story turned into he kidnapped someone and raped them at gunpoint.
Around lunchtime, another student, this one in braids, overalls, and a black beanie, sat down with Diego. “She’s canceled, too,” he said. At the start of the school year — her sophomore year — she had made a comment to a new Black friend about his “monkey ears.” The remark was dumb, full of implicit racial bias. She caught herself in the moment and apologized. The two discussed it. Then, on the second day of school, her second day in a building with students since the middle of eighth grade, he called her a racist in a crowded hallway. Now, despite all the public and private apologies she had made, all the months of therapy and reading, she was still “that racist kid” and probably would be until she graduated in two years.
“There’s no room for growth,” she said, eating the quesadilla she brought for lunch. “You do something wrong, therefore you’re a bad person.” There was no community that, as part of holding you accountable, made space for you to learn; no presumption that you could — and will — change. Who could survive adolescence like that? “My brain isn’t fully developed,” she said. “None of our brains are fully developed.”
She was stoned all the time now — her way to manage her anxiety and get through the day. “People are trying so hard to, like, be the good person in the situation. They always want to be the bigger person. They want to feel like they’re right.” Some girls recently tried to fight her in the bathroom. “I was just like, ‘You need to calm down, you’re acting like a child, please grow up.’ ” She waved to her ex–best friend in the hall.
All around us, kids were falling asleep on the library couches. Staring. Flirting. Scrolling through TikTok. Being teens. Sometimes, Diego wondered what his peers would think when they were older. “If they’ll look back with their kids and be like, Damn, I was so hateful in high school.”
Diego skipped his own graduation. He attended four proms, and after the last he found some drunk kids from his school waiting on his block, at 1 a.m., just to tell him to fuck off. Soon after, the school emptied for the summer, nothing fixed, the clock run out. In three months, Diego was leaving town to go to college hundreds of miles away. He didn’t know if he’d return.
*This story has been updated for clarity and to protect the anonymity of the subjects.