In the wake of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements, students confront consent and sexual harassment

by Dylan Carlson Sirvent and Clare Driscoll, ’19

Ever since The New York Times published its Oct. 5 article “Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades” revealing Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual abuse and predation, stories have poured in from around the world and from every type of industry of women having faced sexual harassment and abuse from men in power.

This outpouring led to the rise of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements. After Alyssa Milano, an American actress and activist, tweeted out on Oct. 15, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” the hashtag me too became viral. Women and men from every walk of life posted the hashtag on their social media accounts to show the extent and reach of sexual harassment within the workplace.

The Time’s Up initiative was launched by Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon and 300 other women in the entertainment industry to address, as is stated on its website, “the systemic inequality and injustice in the workplace” by “improv[ing] laws, employment agreements, and corporate policies, [and to] help change the face of corporate boardrooms.”

The plan includes a legal defense fund which will be administered by the National Women’s Law Center. Launched on Dec. 20, and with more than 19,000 people providing donations, Time’s Up  has raised $19.4 million dollars for its legal defense fund. However, it is still just short of its GoFundMe goal of $20 million.

The watershed following the New York Times’ exposé of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements has prompted current culture to become increasingly aware of its history of sexual harassment or abuse within not only the workplace but every aspect of public life, including Upper Arlington City Schools.

SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION

A recent Arlingtonian survey of 209 students (59 percent of the respondents were female, 37 percent were male, and 3 percent identified as other) revealed some disconcerting statistics from the females in the sample:

  • 73 percent said they had been catcalled
  • 60 percent said they had been the target of a crude or sexual joke or gesture
  • 33 percent said someone had continued to ask them to send nude photos even after they declined
  • 33 percent said someone had touched their body without their permission in a sexual manner
  • 27 percent said someone had continued to ask them for sexual favors even after they had declined

UAHS student Jackie Smith* shared her experiences confronting the gray area of consent as a freshman.

“I was dating someone during my freshman year, and he would want to make out and be physical and I would say, ‘Oh, I’m not really into this,’ and he would say, ‘But, please,’” Smith said.

Smith added that the UA district’s abstinence education, which is mandated by state law, can leave teenagers unprepared when face-to-face with issues that go beyond abstinence.

“The only kind of sex education that we have in schools is abstinence and purity. [Schools] never tell people how to behave once we are past that abstinence line,” Smith said. “There is no teaching of what consent is.”

Sophomore Peter Johanni noted that this lack of education on definitions of sexual harassment and consent contributes to the problem.

“I think that [the school] doesn’t do a good job of defining what sexual harassment is. So,  kids take it too far and don’t realize they’ve sexually harassed someone,” Johanni said. “People just think they’re being flirty or friendly with someone but they’re actually accidentally crossing a line because they don’t realize that their actions are sexual harassment.”

This sentiment is held not only by Smith and Johanni, but by a majority of the respondents from the Arlingtonian survey. Of the 209 students surveyed, 79 percent said the school should be doing more to educate students about what is and isn’t sexual harassment.

UAHS Health teacher Stacey Hoover explained how the state’s curriculum for sex education can allow for such discussions to take place in classes.

“The state standards are very focused on domestic violence within a relationship of any kind. This has opened the door to sexual harassment topics,” Hoover said. “The way the teacher goes about this discussion is up to the discretion of the teacher.”

However, Hoover said that students had not yet brought up the topics of sexual harassment and consent in her classes, but would not be surprised for such topics to be discussed more often.

“I am sure once we start the discussion during our [unit on sexual education] that more students will add to the discussion,” Hoover said.

Junior Laken Lee said that she hopes to see more efforts outside of classes to bring more attention to these topics.

“I don’t think there’s any awareness brought to our UAHS community. It’s not something that has been brought to our attention other than a flyer on a wall,” Lee said. “We should be stressing awareness.”

However, Greg Varner, an English teacher at the high school, said that awareness is only half of the issue.

“The other half [of the issue] is communication… I think it’s important for a person to make clear—by his or her words and actions—what the boundaries are,” Varner said. “What one group might see as playful banter, another might not.”

Currently, in an effort to bring more attention to these matters and create more discussion about them with fellow students, Junior Emma Merchant is starting Sex Ed Club, which focuses on providing a comprehensive sex education in an open and safe place for teens to learn and be curious.

“We’re really focusing on making it an open conversation that’s not telling people not to have sex or telling people they should be having sex, but giving them information so they make their decisions in an informed way,” Merchant said.

Stacey Royer, the Board Vice President, said that the Board regularly reviews its bylaws and policies and that issues concerning sexual harassment are of the boards top priority

“This will continue to be a focus for both the board and the district administration,” Royer said. “This is a very important topic in every area of our society and our schools are certainly no exception”

In addition, UAHS principal Andrew Theado said that students can make proposals to the Research & Design Lab to create more programs that address these issues.

“Students can propose to create new classes, or have monthly seminars, among other things,” Theado said. “It’s about getting together and creating new avenues for students’ ideas.”

Theado added that in order to have meaningful change, these programs cannot be a single event.

“I think the speakers the school sometimes bring heps, but it’s a one-time thing. As soon as students leave the auditorium, they’ll do whatever they want. But, in order to embed change into the culture we need to have long-term and meaningful programs that can be started by students themselves,” Theado said.

ORIGINS OF EDUCATION

In the Arlingtonian survey, respondents chose from a list of scenarios for what they viewed as sexual harassment. The responses were the same for both the male and female respondents except for two questions where perceptions were quite different.

74 percent of the female respondents saw catcalling as a form of sexual harassment, only 44 percent of the male respondents shared this opinion. And, 63 percent of females saw crude gestures or jokes (i.e. “dick” jokes or humping gestures) as sexual harassment, but only 47 percent of males perceived it in the same way.

Lee sees these results as a consequence of the lack of awareness about these issues.

“Sexual harassment is deeply rooted in not having respect for others. If we can start education for young people, from elementary school and middle school to respect women and minorities, then this problem could have a chance to be fixed,” Lee said.

Freshman Sarah Thyer said that the dress code in the middle schools are a factor to this problem of respect.

“[The dress code] makes girls feel like they’re something to be censored while boys can just gawk at us if we’re not covered up,” Thyer said.

On both Hastings’ and Jones’ Student Handbooks  “tube tops, bare midriffs, bare or uncovered backs, and see through mesh shirts” are listed as inappropriate clothing.

These standards are set by the Board of Education which determined the previous items to be specific examples of “unacceptable dress for school and school events” on its Student’s Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.

Thyer recalled a meeting in her eighth grade year where the girls were separated from the boys and were told about the dress code and why they couldn’t dress certain ways.

“At the meeting we were reminded of all the things we couldn’t wear because they may be too distracting for others,” Thyer said.

Junior Robin de Jong also recalled this meeting and said that she was confused by its premise.

“They told us that our shoulder straps had to be three fingers wide across. They wanted to make it so the guys could focus on their education, which doesn’t really make sense,” de Jong said. “Does showing your shoulder really make a guy not be able to focus on their learning?”

Junior Kelly Haddow said she felt this meeting sent an unintended message that may be dangerous.

“It kind of told us that we were responsible for what happened if we wore clothes that were too revealing,” Haddow said. “I understand the reasoning behind it, but it has to be two ways.”

Senior Andrew Morrison did not realize such meeting had ever happened; however, if it did, he thinks male students should also have a meeting about respect and consent.

“I think it’s kind of gross that they pull the girls aside to tell them how to dress but don’t pull they guys aside to discuss controlling themselves,” Morrison said.

The Arlingtonian reached out to Jones Middle School principal Jason Fine and asked him among other things whether these meetings still take place, if there is a corresponding meeting for male students, and whether there are other discussion on this topic in the school.  Fine provided a general response to these questions:

“At Jones we are always looking for ways to improve the culture of our building and help our students build the type of relationship skills they will need to succeed in their schooling, career and personal relationships.  This school year we are focusing on kindness, which seems like a simple concept but it actually gets at the root of how we treat others and how we expect others to treat us.  We can use the message of kindness to lay a strong foundation of an anti-harassment, anti-bullying message in an age-appropriate way.  So far it’s been an amazing year, and I’m extremely proud of our students!  Hastings is working on a similar program.  I think it would be wonderful if all middle schools invested time into this type of message.

“In my time at Jones, the dress code has not been a major issue.  We trust our students to dress responsibly, respectfully and safely, and they do a great job.”

GETTING HELP

Another statistic from the Arlingtonian survey found that 177 out of the 214 students surveyed would not or were not sure if they would seek help from someone at the school if they were experiencing sexual harassment.

Smith explained why in her freshman year after some uncomfortable experiences she did not reach out to a counselor or staff member.

“At the time I don’t think I felt ok with coming to the school counselors because it was pretty early in my freshman year and I didn’t feel all that comfortable looking for help,” Smith said. “But, if I had the same situation happen now I think that I would.”

Theado explained what the current protocol is if a student or staff member reports an instance of sexual harassment.

Once the incident is reported to the district level, the administration comes up with a game plan for how best to investigate the allegation or complaint.

“We have two ways that whoever is bringing that information to us can go about it. We have a formal process and an informal process,” Theado said. “For the formal process we bring in a third party to come investigate it.  For the informal process there is more flexibility. For example, we could still bring in a third party to get an initial picture, but then we could potentially bring two parties together [potentially the accuser and accused] and try to figure out what’s going on that way.”

The third party brought in to investigate these issues are the Board of Education’s attorneys.

“[The school] doesn’t bring [the attorneys] in for for the legal aspects, we would bring them in for their investigative practices. Many of them are trained in investigation,” Theado said.

When searching  on UAHS’ website, the only website that can be found as a resource for sexual harassment is a link to report bullying. Reports submitted to this site automatically go to Theado, the assistant principals Jaclyn Angle, Luis Vasquez, and Jennifer Mox, the Chief Operations Officer, Associate Superintendent, and Director of Communications of the UA district.

Theado said that he believes this is a good entry point for students to look out for one another and ensure a safe environment at UAHS.

“If you see something, if you hear something, say something. The worst thing that we could do as the Upper Arlington community is not worry about these issues,” Theado said. “I know that people call us ‘the bubble’ but we are not immune to those type of things. We want to know what’s going on so [the school] can help and so we can address [these issues] immediately.”