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When Sexual Assault Allegations Hit the News, How to Talk to Students

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Editor’s note: This piece was published before it was confirmed Christine Blasey Ford would testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and before additional allegations were made against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.

What happens in the wider world affects our teaching.

Next week, we may hear from Christine Blasey Ford as she testifies before Congress on the brink of Brett M. Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. She credibly, in my eyes, accuses him of sexual assault.

Here are two small examples of interactions I’ve had with my current and former students, who are preservice teachers, this week:

First, a student arrived in my office in tears because she could not “stop thinking about when this happened to me a few years ago. It’s the same thing, you know?” Her own sexual assault was on replay as she watched Kavanaugh’s ascent, and now braces for Ford’s public testimony.

Next, I received an email from a past student, now teaching social studies in a New Jersey middle school. Her students present a current event to the class each week, which she reviews ahead of time. This week, the student titled her presentation, “Should Judge Kavanaugh be allowed to be on the Supreme Court?” She wanted to know how to handle this.

The conversation about Kavanaugh is enormously polarizing. And yet, regardless of what you believe about this particular situation, sexual assault is a reality for women of all ages and political affiliations.

What I told my students, what I have done myself this week, and what I would advocate to anyone in the classroom is fairly simple: Leave space for conversation. Ask students what they know. Clarify when they have facts that are inaccurate, and allow them to respectfully disagree with one another. Explain that the entire country is struggling with this issue right now, so it might be really hard to come to consensus in the classroom—particularly since the country is not doing a great job of hearing different view points and speaking with the best of intentions. In our classrooms, we can do better.

There is a caveat to this. What about teachers who are “triggered” by the Kavanaugh case, like the student who came to my office? In hearing the allegations, many are reminded of situations from their own lives.

Here, I suggest small group conversations. Open up space and give students ground rules. But situate yourself on the periphery of the conversations rather than in the center. Give each group time to report out with a sentence or two. Students can be heard, if they want to contribute, and you can give yourself the care you need.

Ford’s possible testimony takes place amidst an ongoing national movement to make people aware of the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault and, ultimately, end them. 

There will be other Christine Blasey Fords in the news. There will also be women whose stories don’t show up on the front page of national newspapers. Finding a path forward is what the #MeToo movement is all about.

And so, beyond leaving space for conversation, how can we make our classrooms places that uphold the vision of the #MeToo movement?

1. Teach about consent. Put simply, consent is an active and ongoing process between two people. It is not a negotiation, it is about asking and receiving an affirmative. The “yes” can be retracted by either party at any point. Consent can be taught out of context, and we do this all time. We teach young children to ask permission before taking a toy, to give a toy back when the owner wants it; in other words, to receive consent.

2. If you see something, say something. Letting students know, from day one, that classrooms, hallways, and lunchrooms are safe spaces. So often, we see “small things.” The boys in our classrooms pinching the waists of the girls. Flicking them. Whistling as they pass by. If we are comfortable doing so, we should share our own personal #MeToo stories. The victims should know they are not alone, and all students can build empathy.

3. Ensure that the girls have equal air space. We need to balance the ratio of students we call on. The boys can be loud, and we need to ensure that the girls are heard, their voices valued. Growing up, we internalized the same messages we see being perpetuated in schools today. It’s imperative that we fight against them and allow the voices of young women to be heard, valued, challenged, and encouraged.

4. Get rid of dress codes. Schools are, quite literally, policing what young women wear, sending them home when they wear clothes that women wear in “the real world”: leggings, sleeveless tops, and shorts, for example. When female students are asked to miss class time in order to change, the message is sent that male students are unable to see past their clothing in order to focus and learn. Certainly, young men have seen leggings outside of school. They can handle them in classrooms.

It's impossible to predict what will happen in the coming weeks, whether or not Kavanaugh will ultimately be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Either way, there is a great deal of work to be done, and the moment we find ourselves in illuminates all of it.

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