Sexual harassment doesn’t begin in adulthood. It is grounded in the earliest messages we get about men and women and how to treat one another. Choices about roles and relationships develop while young men and women are in our schools. Schools can become a breeding ground for the development of young women who are unsure of their responses when boys or men behave inappropriately. Or, schools can reinforce respect. Are young boys permitted the “boys will be boys” excuse for talk and actions that reduce the young women in their lives to objects? These questions are now more complex as we embrace the reality of gay and transgender children growing up with gender identity and roles as well.
There are thousands of times children may be touched during the course of their 13 years in schools. Beginning in kindergarten, students are touched for a variety of reasons; while sitting at their desk working, when their attention needs to be brought back from wandering, standing in line or stopping jumping about while waiting in line is a beginning. Patting students on the back for jobs well done is traditional praise and reinforcement. Do we ever think about the space between the adult and the student when the touching occurs? In a system as large as public education, it is difficult to supervise the intent and mindset of each teacher and coach as they work with the children. Years ago the movement to stop hugging and having the little ones sitting on laps was made with the intention of protecting them. But now, with the explosion of revelations about sexual harassment in other fields, it is time for us to revisit our role. We hope our schools produce neither aggressors nor victims.
It seems we shouldn’t need to have these conversations but we do. Is the pat on the back higher on the boys and lower on the girls? Harder on the boys and softer on the girls? Is the space between the adult and the child too close? Are we condoning the behaviors that we abhor in those fraternity students in the hazing incident that left a young man dead? And, how rampant is sexual harassment in our culture? What are we leaning from the continuing flow of revelations about successful businessmen and politicians and media personalities?
Another move that took place several years ago in an attempt to clarify how schools viewed women was a sweep of the backs of kitchens, custodians’ offices, and bus garages. Calendars and photos that sexualized women were removed. Today, to our knowledge, they are no longer hung on those walls; but is this what progress really looks like or is it a change of heart? How can we ensure that we are not contributing to another generation of adults who have among them sexual predators and victims?
The opening of an environment in schools for victims to safely speak out and release the hurt and shame they have experienced will help. But, what about prevention? What about education? Although we are talking about young boys and girls, we are also talking about the empowerment of abusers over victims, of power and subjugation. This spans wider than the traditionally accepted gender roles. We see power wielded over what is somehow accepted as the ‘lesser’. What does that look like in schools? There is probably a different dynamic in each of the schools as they sit in different communities. But, with boldness, leaders need to ask the questions and allow courageous conversations among faculty and staff to take place. Rules are not the answer though they may be the response. This issue calls for character and morality and leadership. It is a call for self-reflection and in many cases, a change of behavior, standing against things we may have previously ignored.
This is the work of educators that many do not understand yet, it is at the center of our work. If we do not make certain that how we treat the children and each other meets the moral level to which we aspire, then we are failing the next generation. If, however, the courage to lead these conversations and hold the discomfort as we discover the imbalance, for example, of interactions and relationships of boys vs. girls, of gay vs. straight children, we will also be holding hope for a better generation where predators will be fewer and victims will be courageous and their words welcomed. In the meantime, we can only hope that adults take a step back and reinforce respect and responsibility for being the best we can be.
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