how I ended up here…
Once in a past life I was a middle school teacher. Becoming a middle school teacher was for me an accident of convenience. I won’t try to explain that too much other than to say substitute teaching while you are working on your art doesn’t probably usually inspire people to become middle school teachers.
But for me somewhere along the line, creating a community in a classroom became its own art and I became enchanted with the possibilities alive in spending my time and energy on a bunch of awkward, loud, ever-changing creatures.
So I stayed. I dug in and had many wonderful years teaching eleven, twelve, and thirteen year old kids about the U.S. Constitution. I taught my students to find the missing people in the history books and the newspaper articles like we were playing Where’s Waldo. I had fun and I think most of my students had fun.
And it is quite possible that I would still be in my classroom today, or somewhere else in a middle school if it weren’t for an ethical awakening that took place for me one spring nearly a decade ago. That spring I would learn about, attempt to address, and ultimately fail at addressing an epidemic of sexual harassment at this middle school. And that experience would set me off on another path into the field of teacher and administrator training.
The story of the events that happened that spring started out fairly tidy although somewhat shocking as the news spread among the faculty. The mother of a seventh grade girl contacted the school’s administration and said her daughter reported witnessing another girl, “Susie,” pushed into a corner by a boy, “Jeff,” who then rubbed his groin up and down on her and grabbed her breasts. She said this happened in a class and in view of an entire class of students while the teacher was temporarily out of the room.
Well Susie, Jeff, and Becky, the student whose mother called in, all were high status families within this school community. These children were all part of a gifted program and the parents from this program peopled the school site council and the greater school board for the community. And I say this before I even begin to discuss how the principal, Mr. Mann, tacked the situation because I am quite sure those were among his first thoughts when he hung up the phone with Becky’s mother.
Mr. Mann determined before beginning his investigation into these events that he wanted a swift and silent means to address this situation so he came to me and a male teacher who ran the gifted program at the school and asked for our assistance. He presumed we knew these students well and could ‘get to the bottom’ of this report for him. He determined that the male teacher should talk to the boys, and I should talk to the girls and in no time we would have “the truth” and he could dole out the consequences.
Thus began my foray into investigating school based sexual assaults and attempting to collaborate with fellow educators when it comes to addressing gender and sexual violence in schools.
And “the truth” turned out to be nothing short of an epic drama of ongoing sexual violence and assault dating back five years and implicating about a quarter of the student cohort. By the end of my first interview with Susie I knew that Jeff did this sort of stuff to me all the time and that Susie hated and feared this young man. I learned that not only had he “cornered” her to grope her body, but that there were two other girls she knew he had been doing this to for the past few years and that “everybody” knew about it. In fact, she explained, in elementary school she and other girls used to report him regularly to teachers and administrators. But nobody really did anything to stop him.
By the time Jon finished his first interview with Jeff, he learned that “Fridays are always Poker days.” And that all the guys plays “Poker Fridays” not just Jeff. And that Jeff believed he and Susie were playing a game. And that according to Jeff, Susie was just making anything else up because he wouldn’t go out with her and she was mad at him.
Well, as Jon and I compared notes we said a collective Holy Crap. Then called in two more teachers to help us sort through these new elements to the story and cover our classes while we continued questioning students.
We needed to figure out what the hell was “cornering” and “Poker Fridays?” And two more girls were being groped in front of everybody? And could it be true that this all had been going on for years now, two on this campus, without any of us knowing anything about it?
Once we’d decided we’d better talk to a few more students from the cohort we started with Becky and another one of the boys who was friends with Jeff. From these discussions we got the names of more girls who were being “cornered” and another boy who was also engaged in “cornering” girls. Some of the cornering descriptions taking place during P.E. sounded frighteningly close to rape.
We also learned what Poker Fridays were….This was a game boys from this class had been playing off and on since its inception in the fifth grade. In the game you brought a deck of cards to school on Friday. Your goal was to slip as many cards down the pants of girls as possible without getting caught. As it turned out, the vast majority of the boys in the class were involved in Poker Fridays, working diligently throughout the day Friday to see how many times they could subversives get their hands into the pants of their female classmates.
So by the end of a one day investigation, we had ourselves a great deal of details about three potential sexual assaults, details of widespread sexual harassment, and a group of students who were surprised that we were surprised by any of this.
Shoot we were each told over and over, that’s just they way Jeff was… That these were just somethings the guys liked to do… No, the girls didn’t like it but what could they really do about that anyways?
Clearly we had a much larger problem on our hands than Mr. Mann expected. When the final bell rang and the students headed off home, the four of us went to the office to discuss our initial findings with him and help prepare a response.
And that became the second place things went right off the rails…
I’ll write more on this tomorrow (Part Two is here) as I continue puzzling how I got here from there and pondering what comes next…
And by the way, of course all the names and identifying details have been changed as I recall this series of events.