School Climate & Safety Opinion

Developing the Courage to Report Sexual Abuse Begins in Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 12, 2017 5 min read
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As women and men speak out about the sexual abuse they have suffered at the hands of the more powerful, they free themselves of shame and fear and return choice and power to themselves. The time has come. We are thankful for it. The secrets long held in silence and in unhealed minds and hearts are finally coming into light. Without that happening, change never would come.

Power and Submission

Schools are certainly part of the foundation where students learn about power and submission, power and shame. Sexual predatory behavior has no place in schools or anywhere. We are concerned that educators may think this is not a ‘school problem’. We think it is. We listened to swimmer Diana Nyad speak about being abused by her coach from the time she was 14. At 21, after discovering that another team mate had also been abused, she went back to the school and told the principal what had happened. She reported that the coach was terminated but he found another job not far away and continued coaching young female swimmers. What a troubling story it was.

Sexual predatory behavior is rooted in power and played out sexually with those who are vulnerable. Unless we understand it has less to do with sex and more to do with power, we will miss an important responsibility to our students. As we watch the women and men stepping forward, out of the shadows now feeling safer than before to expose their abusers, we have an opportunity to learn. Our reactions range from outrage to disgust to pervasive sadness. The abusers appear to be those holding positions and power, fame or status. They often catch their targets off guard. And the victims fear not being believed or worse, being blamed, themselves, in some way or being humiliated and discredited.

Children live in a world of dependence. Adults are in charge of where they live, where they pray or not, what they watch on television, whether they have access to technology, whether they are involved in sports or other activities, and, to some extent, who they have as friends. At age 5 (or earlier) they are delivered to learning places where a new set of adults are in charge of what they do, what they learn, how they learn, when they eat, when they can go to the bathroom. Their experience in school continues through high school with adults are in charge of their activities; what and where they eat, what and where they learn, and how.

But...Self-Efficacy Begins in Childhood

A key is what happens in the classroom. That is where we find the source for teaching self-efficacy, personal empowerment. Self-efficacy begins in infancy. When the infant cries and learns that it brings a response from the parent and repeats the experience because he has learned it produces a response, that is the beginning of understanding personal power. Bandura (1997) studied and reported that longitudinal studies

in which parents are explicitly taught how to provide their infants with experiences of mastery furnish even stronger evidence that enabling influences during infancy build a sense of agency conducive to cognitive development (p.168).

How Can Curriculum Design Can Make a Difference?

Whether students come from homes in which they experienced the effects of having self-efficacy developed or not, it begins anew when they arrive at school. Schools take away personal power and teach children to conform. There are good reasons for that to happen. Safety is one of them. The design of curriculum and the empowerment of learners to have voice and choice are far more than trends. They are a route to student engagement. That is what we want for students, to become engaged learners. Now we may see it as even more important than simply engaging them in their learning while they are in our midst. Empowering students in their learning such as in project and problem based learning, in collaboration with other students, when presenting to experts in the field, does more than keep them engaged in their present situation. Empowering students as learners with voice and choice within the school environment can be a game changer for them as they enter the world as adults.

If we can teach children that they have power, and help them develop a voice, even within the environment in which teachers and leaders are in charge of the boundaries, then perhaps, less of them will enter the world of adulthood seeing and believing that power over another is the sole path to feeling powerful. And for those who do not learn that lesson, perhaps less of them who find themselves having power wielded over them, will fear speaking up and speaking out.

Courage Goes Beyond the Victims’ Reporting

Then there is the second part of the Dianna Nyad story. The fired coach found another job and went on. We know how often employment relationships are terminated with agreements not to state cause. Personnel issues come with a whole array of confidentiality protections and due process. Kudos the principal and school system that responded by terminating this coach but we can’t help but wonder if there hadn’t been hunches about the abuse in someone’s mind before Dianna returned to tell her story. These are some of the most difficult cases that school leaders confront and our jobs are challenging for sure. But, what about protecting the girls in the next school down the road? Do we share any responsibility for their safety? Does that force us to be more forthcoming than we are? Who do we believe and does everyone get a fair hearing? Remember that sometimes the coach is really a community hero and the victim comes from a most vulnerable and unprotected, unconnected place.

Supporters of Judge Roy Moore assert the girl who came forward was 17, not 14. That matters under the law in Alabama. But, the issue happened decades ago so the law will never be relied upon for determining clarity in that controversy. But does it matter? We wonder when, at the end of the day, the school leader goes home, and thinks I did the best I could today. I made a difference in a child’ life, is that the same as I did all I could? There is a precarious line school leaders have to walk and how they do it determines how they will, one day, see themselves. Where does the law and regulation direct your decision and action and how does that reconcile with your conscience? It is easy for us, as bloggers, to say leaders are responsible for all children, in their system and beyond. We acknowledge it is much more difficult to actualize that belief. Sure, we can rest on law and regulation and the boundaries they establish but at the end of the day, we go home, not with them, but with our conscience. It needs to be at peace for us to begin again tomorrow and do an even better job. When what is right goes beyond what is legal, what will you do?

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Photo by geralt courtesy of Pixabay

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.