US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh allegedly pulled down his pants at a college party and thrust his penis at Debbie Ramirez more than thirty-five years ago. Her accusation resurfaced last week in the New York Times by reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, who claimed that seven people corroborated Ramirez’s account of events.
Recall that nearly one year ago, the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment to the US Supreme Court, despite allegations that he sexually assaulted a female classmate while both were in high school. While the political response to his nomination was predictable, the impact of Kavanaugh’s confirmation and the #MeToo movement on current high school students is more uncertain.
As a high school assistant principal, it is clear to me that the confusion surrounding harassment, sexual misconduct, and consent has a far-reaching impact on teens. The stories reported with the #MeToo movement are potent reminders of how much work is left to do.
After Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Kavanaugh became public, I learned about programs aimed at eliminating sexual assault and harassment in schools. The program goals included empowering survivors through advocacy and social change. (Haven sponsors the programs)
Kavanaugh, accused of sexually assaulting a classmate within a toxic high school culture, was nominated by President Trump, who stands accused by more than twenty women of sexual misconduct himself.
We discussed programs aimed at providing students with skills to form violence-free relationships, raise awareness of sexual assault, and prevent harassment. The paradox involving Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination was not lost on me. Kavanaugh, accused of sexually assaulting a classmate within a toxic high school culture, was nominated by a man who stands accused by more than twenty women of sexual misconduct himself.
The mere existence of multiple allegations against two of the most powerful men in the United States influences the way adolescents view sexual abuse. Both men have a firm handle on their power amid several allegations, while some of their alleged victims suffer because they spoke out.
Some of the pressing issues that today’s news events place on the doorstop of American schools — topics about harassment, misogyny, and inequity to name a few — require teachers and schools to work with precision and uncommon skill. After all, these are valuable teachable moments. Handled without care and intentionality, students might receive the wrong messages about consent and assault. Young people may never begin to unlearn messages in our culture about victim-shaming and blame if adults fail to see the big picture. Many teenagers lack the skills and life experience to understand the gravity of sexual misconduct like the allegations described in the news about President Trump or Justice Kavanaugh.
Today’s teens have more exposure to news and information than any generation before them, so even though they may not express much interest in the news, they are still aware of what is happening.
Keeping up with all of the Trump-era news items can be confusing for informed adults. Imagine how difficult it is for a teen to navigate so many competing narratives. Today’s teens have more exposure to news and information than any generation before them. Even though they may not express much interest in the story, they are still aware of what is happening.
Our children will eventually enter voting booths, college campuses, and the workforce. I am concerned about what they learn when we fail to address what is happening in the world. Teens learn how to create healthy boundaries from their peers and adult influences in their lives. Families and communities are often the best sources for understanding such personal topics, and we should be mindful of the lessons our reactions to news events are providing young people about power, advocacy, and justice. People who assume these stories are not relevant to the school experience are only kidding themselves.
“Judge Kavanaugh showed America exactly why I nominated him,” Trump tweeted after Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Judicial Committee. “His testimony was powerful, honest, and riveting.”
Despite President Trump’s passionate defense of the conservative justice, the latest reports have led some prominent Democrats to conclude that Kavanaugh lied under oath in his confirmation hearing and should face impeachment proceedings. President Trump thinks the US Department of Justice “should come to the rescue” of the embattled justice.
Regardless of your personal opinion on these matters, teens have a lot to unpack when it comes to sexual assault, and adults should be prepared to help them navigate the issue responsibly.
Even though the details of this latest twist to the Kavanaugh saga may have gone mostly unnoticed by American teens, the lack of a legitimate and sustained conversation around the topic of sexual misconduct should concern every person in our nation. The repercussions of our collective failure to acknowledge the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct will have a negative impact. The experiences of victims and those who are most vulnerable deserve our attention and commitment to do better.
What I learned from Clarence Thomas and Bill Clinton in the ‘90s
When Joe Biden’s US Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Professor Anita Hill in 1991 about her allegation that Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her in the workplace, I was a high school sophomore.
To me, the 52–48 confirmation of Justice Thomas represented an isolated political incident that he narrowly escaped. I had no idea, nor would I have cared much, that the US Senate was a de facto all-boys club.
I remember being confused about who was telling the truth, and I knew the allegations were a big deal. I never even considered whether it mattered that the US Senate — made up of ninety-eight men and two women at the time — either did not believe Hill or did not care much about the allegations. I had blind trust in a nomination process that I didn’t even know to question. I was a fourteen-year-old white male unaware of the complexity and the context surrounding the headlines I was consuming.
Understanding how the political landscape influenced the national conversation was never raised in my high school social studies classes. I was never challenged to think about how Anita Hill was treated by the media or the men on the Judiciary Committee. Exploring why the treatment of Hill was essential to understanding inequity and harassment never reached my classroom. I am not even sure a conversation about injustice reached many living rooms across the nation at that time.
Sadly, me and my classmates throughout the nation missed out on valuable lessons that could have helped us navigate today’s politics more constructively. We never took the risk to put the conversation on the table in my classes. We were probably too busy copying down vocab terms or studying democracy in ancient Rome.
It is professional negligence to consciously avoid social issues and mature news topics when those topics connect to curriculum, our students and our communities.
Students deserve a voice on issues, and they should be provided a platform to safely wonder about the topics that impact their lives and the rest of the world. Not every controversial topic needs to have winners and losers. Exposure to facts, relevance, and other perspectives encourage adolescents to honor the complexity and differing values among human beings. Adults will learn by the example our children provide about how to engage with civility and kindness.
Early in my teaching career, a colleague encouraged me to avoid controversial topics in my classroom. Maybe it was because of how difficult controversial issues are to navigate for teachers, but more likely, the advice was rooted in a survival instinct to avoid challenges from over-zealous parents. With social media and the 24-hour news cycle, many of today’s students aren’t hearing about news topics for the first time from teachers though. Dodging difficult issues was not the answer fifteen years ago, and it is not the answer now.
My point is that the adults — families, schools, and other institutions — need to approach tricky topics with professionalism and care. When a controversial issue comes into the classroom, students deserve the space to think through disagreements in a safe way that honors context and nuance. It is professional negligence to consciously avoid social issues and mature news topics when those topics connect to curriculum, our students, and our communities.
I grew up failing to critically think about the context of Anita Hill’s allegations because tough questions were never posed for my consideration, and alternative perspectives were left in the dark.
Teens are in a position to serve as agents for change in our country, and their school experience exploring relevant issues could be a powerful catalyst.
Last year, we heard countless replays of Kavanaugh claiming, “I like beer” through memes and spoofs while sidestepping his purported role in a toxic school culture that encouraged immoral behavior. Today’s teens may not be any better off than I was three decades ago. In today’s social media-driven world, the conversation is driven by comedians, pundits, and ideologues. We should not miss the opportunity to shed light on the meaningful context of these news events.
Teens are in a position to serve as agents for change in our country, and their school experience exploring relevant issues could be a powerful catalyst. Our students are making assumptions about what is acceptable when they hear President Trump bragging about grabbing women by their genitalia. Politics aside, young people will be better off down the road if they are challenged to think critically about topics that explicitly challenge cultural norms. An honest conversation about misogyny and the culture surrounding sexual misconduct has nothing to do with political affiliation or political correctness, as is mentioned by some politicians.
When I was in college, and President Bill Clinton had an affair with a White House intern, and so much of the national conversation fixated on the political ramifications and the legality of consent. I viewed President Clinton’s behavior as an immoral and disgraceful choice. I just chose to pay closer attention to why he was defending himself than I did to the harm he had caused.
The lens I was analyzing the entire Clinton-Lewinsky situation was shallow because I had never been challenged to think differently about sexual misconduct to that point. I was a young adult without the ability to listen or develop valuable questions that might have helped me gain a better grasp of the seriousness of the president’s actions. I had the privilege of never being burdened with even thinking about the issue.
I am committed to empowering people and shifting our focus in schools so that we are providing students with more tools to advocate and create a positive change around these issues.