In which earnest teachers and administrators fail in their attempts to address sexual harassment and sexual assault.
A couple of days ago I posted about one of the fundamental experiences I had as a teacher that sent me down the path of graduate studies on gender and sexuality issues in public education.
In that post I wrote about investigating a report of sexual assault and the web of sexual harassment and sexual assault that unraveled perhaps 15 minutes into the investigation.
This second post is about how we as a professional community decided to address that situation and about how both the targets and the perpetrators of this social violence were negatively impacted by our professional interventions.
I left off before with myself and three other teachers returning to the school’s principal, Mr. Mann, to tell him what we learned from our interviews with the students involved in this situation. Mr. Mann had asked us to use our close relationships with our students to get to the bottom of a reported sexual assault in one of our classrooms. According to a parent complaint, a seventh grade boy named Jeff had cornered, grinded himself upon, and groped the breasts of a girl named Susie in front of all of their classmates. The incident reportedly happened when that teacher left his classroom for five minutes to replace an overhead projector bulb. Only one student, Becky, reported this event to her parent who then reported it to the principal.
During our interviews many student confirmed not only Jeff’s “cornering” and sexually groping his classmate Susie, we also learned that a large number of boys in this class were attempting to secretly touch girls under the gaze of their male peers every Friday in a game they called “Poker Fridays” or “Poke Her Fridays” depending upon who you asked.
We learned that Jeff “cornered” two other girls from the class both during academic classes, and much more frequently and aggressively during P.E. where the supervision was much more irregular. We learned that two other boys from the class were also notorious for this form of groping of their female classmates. And we learned that there was a collective history in this class of this sort of sexual harassment dating back to the fourth grade.
Laying these issues on the table for Mr. Mann we four teachers suggested that not only must Jeff be dealt with; we felt that this entire culture of sexual harassment and violence demanded an intervention. Mr. Mann was reluctant to go beyond immediately interviewing and potentially suspending Jeff for the moment and told us to meet as a grade level team and propose other actions to him later in the week.
In the interim Mr. Mann had held Jeff in the office after school and awaited a meeting with him and his parents. When his mother arrived Jeff denied the accusation and his parents supported his version of the earlier events. Mr. Mann told them he would conduct a ‘formal investigation’ the following day and that he would recommend expulsion if he found that Jeff had in fact assaulted Susie.
Day 2: Jeff was back in the classroom seated directly across from Susie. We class teachers had met as a group early that morning and determined to keep supervision at a peak. We also decided to keep these students apart while the investigation ensued.
Susie was called to the office at the beginning of first period to the audible delight of her classmates. I and my professional peers continued teaching in the hopes that the situation was getting resolved down the hall in the office and that Jeff would be removed from classes in short order.
As the morning progressed Susie returned to class and Jeff remained gleefully at his desk enjoying the day.
By noon two well-meaning and slightly gossip oriented students came into my empty classroom to inform me that “all the girls” now hated Susie.
They explained that there was a general assumption that Susie had reported Jeff’s behavior and no one was talking to her. I asked these informants how they knew this and they said everyone was talking about it, that Jeff and a lot of people were using IM (internet instant messaging in the pre-facebook world) all of the previous night about what a “whore” Susie was and how she was trying to get Jeff in trouble. (When using the word “whore” these young girls used scare quotes and whispered to me. I wondered to myself what they presumed the word meant.)
Following the conversation I called Mr. Mann who told me Susie had denied the entire event during her interview first period. I told him about this latest report but he said if Susie did not confirm the events he would not press the issue.
I’d like to say things got better from here, but obviously they were not headed in that direction at all.
Within no time at all an array of stories was circulating about Susie, Becky, and every other girl who had been interviewed the previous day. Apparently the general possibility that any of these girls may have reported on Jeff marked them as targets for peer harassment as not only ‘narks’ but also as some sort of equivalent of a sexual tease or worse who was just out to get boys for simply ‘being boys.’
These memes moved quickly in both the teen and the adult world and it wasn’t even the end of day two when teachers in the school began talking about the schools dress code, short skirts and cleavage, and how to devise a great enough threat to control male sexuality.
I kid you not, we had teachers talking about bringing in the police to meet with all the boys and read them the penalty code for rape ala Scared Straight – a failed social curriculum of that era. We also had teachers wanting to meet with all the girls to talk to them about their tight and skimpy clothing and how it was just asking for trouble.
Seriously this was precisely what all the girls had already said about Susie, what all the boys and girls had said the night before online, girls asked for it and boys couldn’t help it…It was as if the discussions of the day prior when both boys and girls had initially reported these events with shock, fear, and disgust had never happened.
Day 3: The professional community openly splintered on responses.
Mr. Mann held a morning faculty meeting on the third day of this situation to quell teacher rumors. During this meeting he explained there would be no discipline as a result of this complaint as there was no consistent story or complaint on the part of a victim. He explained that Jeff’s parents told him they would fight any action to the full extent of their powers (a political and legal threat in this community). And he said that based upon the investigation he had concluded that the entire class needed some sort of intervention and that he would leave that teaching to the grade level teaching team.
That afternoon we teachers met again as a team, with Mr. Mann present to lead the ‘male teachers.’ He had determined we needed to segregate the genders to address this situation. He then told the male teachers, and we silently witnessing female teachers, that boys can’t control their sexual drive and thus he and the other teachers must simply use authority and discipline to prevent future events like this from happening.
While the teachers, Jon among them, disagreed with elements of Mr. Mann’s thesis they went along with the idea that boys must be threatened and terrified of ‘consequences’ in order to prevent them from following their heterosexual urges.
As we female teachers began to speak to this premise, Mr. Mann cut us off and said we should concern ourselves with a plan for addressing the seventh grade girls and review it with him before implementing it. Yes he was competent to review a plan for the girls, but we were not competent to give input about the boys…
He gave us the remainder of the week to plan explaining that during the following week the boys and the girls would be segregated for a class period each day to learn whatever it was we planned to teach them.
I could go on from to chronicle details of the sexist and gendered devolution of the professional community, the increased harassment of the primary targets of Jeff’s attentions, the expanded accusations of sexual harassment, and the ultimate parental removal of one of the targeted girls from school.
But I won’t.
Because it all still turns my stomach.
And I still wonder how high school turned out for Susie.
And for Jeff.
But more than that I still think a lot
– about everything we all did wrong.
– about everything those kids – in our school and in our classrooms – assumed was normal and acceptable.
– about who was teaching those children about our societal norms regarding gender and sexuality.
– and about who was enforcing that no harassment policy.
During that unpleasant spring, I gave my all to making a workable solution, some sort of ‘learning opportunity’ to that team of teachers, students, and administration. And I would say my peers gave their all too. And the best we came up with was woefully inadequate. Or worse.
This experience sat with me as I determined to go back to school myself and explore curriculum, teacher training, and administrative leadership that could make school even marginally more just and less brutal with regards to gender and sexuality.
There are of course many other moments, earlier and later, in which the expansive depths of the social matrix of gender and sexuality brutality and domination have become abundantly apparent to me. Each event sits with me still.
A reminder of my personal role in this reiterative play.
A reminder of the immense authority the ‘knowledge’ system of schooling offers to sanction such brutality.
A reminder of my personal silencing and terror as a lesser subject being female and lesbian.
A reminder that I need to keep looking for something else.
Something that isn’t yet.
And so like a quilter I keep patching together these stories, these patterns, these layers, with the faith that somewhere in the pattern – if I move back far enough – I will begin to see something new…
Or you will.
And we can then make something different happen.