How Schools Can Lead on Sexual Harassment

Opinion | Diversity and Equity

How Schools Can Lead on Sexual Harassment

By Simon Rodberg     Oct 5, 2018

How Schools Can Lead on Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment allegations against a Supreme Court nominee prompt discussions of how to better educate students.

For those of us who work with adolescents, the Brett Kavanaugh accusations require self-reflection: How different are our schools from what we now know about prep-school culture in the 1980s? How do we lead boys to be better?

Last year, the #MeToo movement forced institutions across the country to reckon with sexual harassment. This included the school where I was principal. In addition to reading, writing, and algebra, we had to figure out how to guide adolescent sexuality and draw the line between normal misbehavior and cause for outrage. Not because we had any more issues with this than anywhere else—but because these situations have always been there, and now we had not just a mandate but a national conversation to help us address it.

The first step was to take a strong, public stand against sexual harassment. In our advisory classes—extended homerooms focused on social-emotional learning and community-building— we taught age-appropriate lessons about stopping harassment starting in sixth grade. Yes, sixth grade: At this age, there is already a lot of touching, comments about looks, and dating, and students need to be clear about the importance of consent. I also spoke at every grade’s community meeting—usually a time for celebrations, and usually led by grade-level leaders, not by me—to underline how seriously the school took this issue.

I did so, in part, to encourage students to speak up and come forward if they experienced harassment. They did, but often not through official channels such as the assistant principal or counselor. Rather, they told whatever adult at school they trusted most—a sign of how important such relationships are at schools. Sometimes, they told a friend who told an adult.

I believe we actually had a much stronger, safer culture than most schools. (And nothing criminal, as what Christine Blasey Ford alleges Judge Kavanaugh did.) As one female staff member told me, “boys touched my butt in high school all the time. I just didn’t think to report it.” The difference was that, at our school, we’d created a culture of reporting, to combat the American culture of male sexual privilege.

Once we knew about an incident, we had to decide how to respond. Most of the cases I dealt with were hugs that lasted too long or weren’t mutually desired, or where hands seemed to wander where they shouldn’t. And of the aggressors, most of the boys (and one girl) I spoke to honestly seemed as if they didn’t realize that what they were doing was wrong. These didn’t seem like cases for expulsion, especially of 7th and 8th graders. (We would have expelled for more severe behavior.)

The most important thing we did was listen to those who had experienced harassment. We asked them—and their parents—what did they want to happen? In almost every case, they wanted the aggressor to understand what they’d done wrong, and not to do it again. They almost never wanted expulsion; they just wanted to feel safe in school. Sometimes they wanted a meeting directly with their harasser; sometimes they didn’t want to be in the same room ever again. We considered the welfare of the victim our highest priority.

Yet we were responsible for educating the aggressors as well. That’s part of the difficult challenge of this issue when it comes to young people. And what I found was that simply defining sexual harassment, and denouncing it, wasn’t enough—because consent isn’t clear to adolescents. They honestly couldn’t tell if a certain kind of touch was okay with the other person. We were taking a stand as a school, but to some of our students, it was a conceptual stand that left them uncertain, in actual social situations, how to live up to. With them, we worked through scenarios and gave guidelines: You can only touch a girl to shake hands. If you want to touch a girl anywhere else, ask her verbally and wait for her verbally to say yes.

In other words, we taught those students to live by affirmative consent, where the standard is a clear and explicit “yes,” not an absence of a “no.” Our society isn’t yet at a point where affirmative consent is commonly taught, or expected. But I’ve now watched teenagers truly struggle with understanding where the lines are. Schools, and parents, need to both speak out against sexual harassment and assault and teach affirmative consent to all young people.

There will, sadly, still be cases where lines are crossed, and that’s where schools need clear policies, trusted adults and leadership that takes those cases seriously. I encourage parents and students to ask your school: How has it dealt with issues of sexual harassment? If they haven’t, that’s probably a bad sign. Only by creating a culture of reporting and actively educating against harassment can we stop it.

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