School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Schools Teach Victims and Abusers: Leadership Lessons From Michigan State

By Jill Berkowicz and Ann Myers — January 28, 2018 5 min read

How many voices does it take? Is one child enough to cause a leader to set everything else aside and listen? Will 20 voices make the difference if one story doesn’t create enough credibility or move a leader to action? Or is it hundreds? When does the conscience of a leader take over and compel the defense of a student even if it might cost adults a job or an institution financial support? Both Michigan State and USA Gymnastics have given us examples these past few months....and those examples have been bad ones.

It took an outsider to believe the girls. How sad is that? Yet, how grateful can we be that finally there was someone who listened? A dedicated journalist and 160 courageous women finally came together, supported each other, and spoke out against the horrors of the sexual abuse that they experienced as young gymnasts. Back then, some of them spoke out as individual little girls, but it seems that, in some cases, even their parents didn’t believe them. But, as one of the women said in court, “Little girls grow up to be strong women.” There is certainly evidence that they survived and finding each other helps. But, healing the abuse is a journey longer than a trial.

The abusive doctor, Dr. Larry Nassar, is going to jail for the rest of his life. But, what of those whose inaction gave him protection for all those years? The college president has resigned. Her statement read " As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger ...” Really, is that what happened? Did this case and verdict reflect the politicization of the abuse or does she still not get it, totally wanting to absolve herself of responsibility and cast herself, also, as a victim. She takes her annual salary of $750,000 with her and is given a position on faculty where she can further influence young students. It doesn’t work for us. And, then the board thanked her for serving with distinction. Really?

Now coaches, athletic directors and the board of USA Gymnastics are also resigning and retiring. There are surely are more to follow. It was the doctor and the system that gave him cover to blame. These women are not done. Their voices in support of each other are determined not to stop until everyone who allowed this to happen to them is held accountable. In this process, hopefully healing happens.

These stories are about sexual abuse of children. We just came through what we believe is just the tip of the iceberg when leaders in Hollywood, business, and politics were accused by women for abuse and harassment. Some abusers lost their jobs and their reputations. It took a group of adult women, supporting each other, before anyone listened in both cases. There is power in numbers and voices are rising.

Schools Quiet Voices and Teach Victims and Abusers

There is a choice point here for educators. We can read these stories and follow the press about the uncovering of these cases with shock and interest and shake our heads. Or we can take a look inside schools and see how we teach children. The adages of ‘if you see something, say something” or “when something happens to you that is wrong or makes you uncomfortable, speak up” aren’t working.

Today, we heard of a situation in a high school where a teacher verbally humiliated a female student in front of the class. A colleague of the offending teacher revealed the situation to us. Humiliation is not discipline. Humiliation is the abuse of power. The power that teachers and leaders hold over students is sometime abused, perhaps more times than is realized. As children live through these situations lessons are learned. There are those who watch the humiliation and counsel the student on what they could have done differently to avoid the verbal outburst. There are others who are concerned about reporting a colleague and what that will do to their standing with the rest of the faculty. There are leaders who shake their head and even will investigate and accept the teacher’s word about what was said or offer “counseling” notes for a file. And there are those who will go so far to ask other students what was said. None of it is enough. Students grow from these situations into either those who feel free to threaten and abuse or those who are easily made to feel like targets of abuse.

We need to build school environments in which a frustrated, mocking outburst by a teacher to a student isn’t acceptable. But also an environment where a mistake can easily be resolved with a sincere apology. Students must feel free to go to the administration or another teacher to report the incident and school leaders and their faculties must respond with action. Children do not have power as we do. They come to school because it is the law or because their parents make them. They open the books that we tell them. They do the assignments they are given. They can’t even go to the bathroom without permission. The environment is one of submission. So when something goes wrong, they don’t feel comfortable or they feel they have been wronged, they deserve help and support. They deserve to be heard.

We have an obligation to set the stage on which students can learn for the rest of their lives. Too often, without intention, students are taught not to ‘rock the boat’, to be safe rather than courageous. That has to be changed. These survivors have provided all of us with models, speaking their pain and their truth from childhood and adolescence, as strong, adult women. No leader can listen to there stories and not be moved by the truth that it was not the act alone that affected them and their lives, it was the lack of action when they reported it. Schools can teach children that speaking up until they are heard is right. Educators can teach them how to do it with dignity and courage and persistence. Leaders need to listen and act and to make the safety of their students the most important priority. From our perspective, that is what it means to serve with distinction. It is more important than how much money you raised or how many papers you published. Can we really be confused over this? What is more important: preserving the institution or protecting the students within it? Dylan Thomas, the poet, speaks for us, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light....Do not go gentle into that good night...”

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.

Photo by markzfilter courtesy of Pixabay

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