School & District Management

How Is the Focus on Sexual Assault Awareness Playing Out in Classrooms?

By Madeline Will — November 14, 2017 3 min read
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Lately, it seems like a powerful man—from Hollywood to Capitol Hill and beyond—is being accused of sexual assault or harassment almost daily. (The New York Times has counted at least 20 high-profile men who have been accused of sexual misconduct since Oct. 5.)

And millions of women, including celebrities and politicians, have joined the conversation by saying or posting #MeToo—meaning they have been affected by sexual harrassment or violence.

How has this news trickled down into classrooms?

Jason Jaffe, the social studies department chairman at Glenbard East High School in Illinois, teaches a current events class. The sexual assault allegations have come up multiple times during discussions about what’s in the news, he said.

In an email, Jaffe said that he strongly believes teachers should engage with students on controversial topics.

“Overall, I’ve been proud of the dignity and gravitas with which my students have conversed about the topics,” he said. “Some students expressed the idea that some women (and men) might be making accusations ‘for the sake of a paycheck.’ To that end, questions arose like, ‘Why didn’t they come forward sooner? Why (in the Louis C.K. news, specifically) didn’t the women just leave?’ Such questions have given us great opportunity to talk about explicit and implicit power dynamics in relationships, the cost of social stigma, and the value of strength in numbers in coming forward.”

As part of the class, his students vote on topics for summative discussions and debates. Jaffe said that if his students choose this topic for a future debate, he would start by bringing in a team of deans, social workers, and counselors to address potential triggers and share resources available for sexual assault victims.

“If the #metoo movement has taught us anything, it is that there are far more victims among us than we ever thought,” he said.

Indeed, 1 out of every 6 U.S. women will have experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, according to RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. Women aged 16-19 are four times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.

That means that teachers should be aware that conversations about the national news might feel very personal to their students:

The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States just compiled a guide for teaching young people about sexual assault, harassment, and consent. And Elizabeth Meyer, the associate dean for teacher education in the education school at the University of Colorado, Boulder, wrote a blog post saying that educators should talk to their students about gender stereotypes. And every teacher, she wrote, should know who their school’s Title IX coordinator is and ask them what they are doing to prevent sexual harassment and assault in school.

See also: Responding to and Preventing Sexual Violence Must Be Higher Priority for K-12, Experts Tell Lawmakers

Education Week opinion bloggers Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers wrote that educators must foster a safe environment where everyone believes someone will listen to them about accusations of sexual harassment.

“Among our staff and our student body are women and men, girls and boys who are victims. We have an obligation to teach what sexual harassment is and how to deal with it,” they wrote.

Last year, after a tape showing Donald Trump in 2005 making offensive comments about women surfaced, Education Week Teacher opinion blogger Christina Torres reflected on what it meant to be female teacher in a society of rape culture.

To be a female teacher, or any teacher, in America means teaching that this kind of message—one where our men are taught violence is power and our women accept that as the status quo—must not continue. We must teach our students to hear, understand, and ultimately dismantle those beliefs before another generation of women has to worry that their assault is a cliché to begin with."

For teachers struggling to begin the conversation, the New York Times’ Learning Network has compiled teaching activities for an in-depth article called, “The ‘Click’ Moment: How the Weinstein Scandal Unleashed a Tsunami.”

Teachers, have you addressed the sexual assault allegations—what some are calling a watershed moment for our culture—in class? How did those conversations go? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.