Conversations About Sexual Assault Have Roiled the Nation. 6 Takeaways for Educators

| Updated: October 5, 2018
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The controversial confirmation process for U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh has Americans grappling with some heavy and divisive questions about men, women, bodies, and power.

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about an alleged sexual assault by Kavanaugh while they were high school students set off a flurry of heated debates best summed up in recent trending hashtags: #WhyIDidntReport, #BelieveWomen, #StopKavanaugh, #ConfirmKavanaugh.

It’s unavoidable that these sensitive issues have made their way into student’s social media interactions and your school hallways and classrooms.

For students, schools are often the place where their attitudes about how men and women should behave are reinforced. And there are many educators with their own stories of sexual assault and harassment, making the news feel acutely personal.

Amid a steady stream of headlines and hot takes, it may be difficult for educators to understand the effect this cultural moment is having on their students, colleagues, and schools — and how they should proceed. To help, Education Week has put together the following list of takeaways from our recent coverage for you:

1. Educators are having to lead some tough conversations.

A typical confirmation process for a Supreme Court nominee would already prompt discussion. Normally, you and your students would be talking about the branches of government, checks and balances, and the tenure of Supreme Court justices. Now there are different questions popping up, and in some schools, they are creating teachable moments:

  • What constitutes consent?
  • Why don’t women report sexual harassment or assault?
  • Should students be held accountable later in life for their actions in high school?

2. Consent is teachable. But it’s not covered much in sex education.

The content of sex education across the country varies widely. Fewer than half the states require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” as part of a sex ed. program, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group that tracks reproductive rights globally. Similarly, a majority of states don’t require discussion of healthy relationships. However, there is an effort, propelled by the #MeToo movement, to teach comprehensive sex education that includes discussions on healthy relationships, preventing violence, and ensuring consent. And students themselves are finding ways to broach these topic with their peers. See what comprehensive sex education looks like in action in this short video:

3. Educators and researchers are sharing suggestions for countering stereotypes around gender roles and preventing sexual violence.

How can you and your colleagues navigate the difficult discussions swirling around schools and classrooms? How can you, and others working in schools, change pervasive and misguided notions about how men should treat women? Looking beyond the classroom, what schoolwide interventions are there to address sexual assault?

These four essays can provide some insight (and inspiration):

4. When students say #MeToo, schools may be unprepared to help.

If students speak up about sexual assault, are their schools ready to help them? Under Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in education, students can ask schools to address the fallout of a sexual assault, even if it occurred off campus. But in some schools, students may face confusing obstacles as they determine where and how to share concerns or report an incident, researchers and advocates say.

5. K-12 education is a female-dominated field. But it is not immune from sexual misconduct.

The teaching profession is predominantly made up of women and most teachers spend much of their day in a classroom, isolated from their coworkers. Still, 25 percent of female educators, and 6 percent of male educators, say they have personally experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job. That’s according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center. The survey also found that nearly 60 percent of teachers and administrators who said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or assault did not report it to any authority.

6. Teachers often don’t report sexual assault and harassment. And there are some unique reasons why.

Ordinary women who've experienced harassment or assault at work are often reluctant to share their stories publicly. Staff Writer Arianna Prothero has been covering sexual misconduct in schools for Education Week. In her reporting, she found that to be just as true in schools and other K-12 workplaces. “What has struck me most in my reporting, and what I found the most heartbreaking,” writes Prothero, “was how desperately some teachers we spoke with wanted to share their stories … but they weren’t convinced that their small stand would ultimately make a difference.”

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