To the Teacher
Last year, shortly after #MeToo spread as a hashtag and shorthand, a companion phrase also emerged: “Believe women.”
In other words, believe women when they tell stories of assault and harassment. Victims’ lives are rarely made easier by levying accusations against perpetrators (especially powerful ones), so if a woman has come forward, she’s probably doing so at personal cost. So believe her. At the very least, respectfully consider her claims.
The question of believing women has come to the fore ever since Christine Blasey Ford stepped forward with allegations about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. As the Washington Post reported on September 17, 2018:
“On Sunday, a California professor named Christine Blasey Ford identified herself as the previously anonymous accuser claiming Brett M. Kavanaugh assaulted her when they were in high school. At a party in the 1980s, she said, a drunken Kavanaugh tried to pull off her bathing suit, pinning her down while holding his hand over her mouth. Ford said she remained traumatized enough about the event that she brought it up in therapy in 2012; her therapist provided The Washington Post with documentation. Kavanaugh has categorically denied the accusation.”
The lesson below has students read one high school senior’s perspective on what teenagers are learning from the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, and invites them to share their perspectives. It uses a circle format in which everyone is seated in a circle and passes around a talking piece to share their thoughts, including you as the circle keeper. It can be adapted for a non-circle format as well.
A Cautionary Note
Before you undertake this activity, consider the students you’ll be working with and whether the community you have created will allow for respectful, compassionate sharing and listening on sensitive topics.
Be aware that students in the group may have experienced some form of harassment or abuse themselves. Though none of the prompts in the activity below invite students to share those experiences directly, students may nonetheless share troubled feelings or disturbing experiences. As the keeper, it is important you stay fully present and acknowledge those feelings and experiences when the talking piece comes back to you. Keep in mind that listening, believing, and validating a survivor’s feelings, can contribute positively to their healing process. Modeling this as the keeper will also help other participants follow your lead and be their best selves with each other.
You don’t have to be a trained professional to provide support to survivors. A circle process with caring peers can be a powerful healing experience. We know that survivors tend to first disclose the abuse they experienced to a person, or persons, they trust. The circle you have built since the start of the school year, may have that trust.
If personal information of any kind is shared, make sure as you close the circle to reemphasize the importance of confidentiality. Check in with students who you think may need it after class. Find out what they need. Remember, you don’t need to have all the answers and asking for help from your school support staff, counselors and administration makes sense in situations like these. In fact, you might consider inviting another supportive adult into the circle ahead of time, if they’re available.
If students disclose personal information in the circle, that you are required to report, follow the appropriate school, local, and/or state procedures for any given incident. If you don’t know what that is, ask your school counselor or administration. See the National Association of School Psychologists website for additional resources. For more suggestions on teaching on this sensitive issue, see our lesson Kavanaugh Controversy: A Tough but Important Teachable Moment.
Finally, remember that you may need to set boundaries yourself. Holding space for and responding to a disclosure can be exhausting (which is another reason why seeking support from others in the building can be important). You need to take care of yourself so you can be there for your students.
Tell students that in the circle today you’re going to read and reflect on an essay by a high school student about the need to respect those who disclose their experiences with sexual harassment or abuse. You may add that harassment and abuse are unfortunately all too common and so there will likely be people in the circle who can relate, in some instances personally, to some or all of what is shared in this essay.
If your class has established community norms, now is a good time to revisit and recommit to them. Talk about the importance of confidentiality and remind students what it means for you to be a mandatory reporter. Ask students to think about what they will need from their classmates to share their thoughts and feelings on this issue. Consider a go round, that invites students to pick a community norm or value that they believe will be especially important to honor in today’s circle. Responses could include such things as confidentiality, listening well, respecting the talking piece, not making assumptions about other people, encouragement, support, caring, compassion, empathy, authenticity, being our best selves, etc.
Remind students that in a circle, the talking piece serves as an invitation to share or to pass. We invite you to share only what you feel comfortable sharing. We do ask you to be present and listening to each other when you don’t have the talking piece. Let’s make sure to be sensitive, respectful and supportive going into today’s circle.
Show students the tweet below, from Corey Booker, Democratic Senator from NJ:
- Ask students what this tweet is referring to.
- What do they know about the story that has been unfolding in the news in recent weeks, including a Senate hearing on Thursday, September 27?
A Teenager Shares Out
Read out loud, or invite a volunteer to read out loud, the following segment from an essay in the Huffington Post by high school senior Jessica Melnik:
“When I was in 8th grade, somebody broke into my house while I was home alone with my younger sister, and I had to dial 911. When the police arrived, they questioned me and my sister. Then, they launched an investigation.
Throughout that process, I felt safe, believed and heard. I was not badgered about the amount of information I could recall. I wasn’t told that if I had acted differently, maybe the person would not have broken into my house. I was treated like the victim of a crime.
There is a stark contrast between my experience as a victim of a break-in and the experiences of victims of sexual violence in today’s world. This contrast is all too commonly felt and seen by many of my high school peers.
This past week, my high school peers and I have watched as women like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford have come forward to accuse Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of committing sexual assault when he was a teenager. And we teenagers are paying attention to how our leaders are addressing these allegations and the messages they are sending to us young people.
My peers and I fear coming forward to report any forms of sexual violence because we have no effective recourse. When I was in 9th grade, I was sexually harassed by a group of boys. When I came forward to report my harassers, I was scrutinized by my peers, who told me that I was ‘ruining their reputations’ and that it was ‘just a joke.’ I regretted my decision almost instantly. My decision to report came so easily when I was calling 911 in a panicked fear that somebody was violating the safety of my home. But I did not have the same confidence reporting my harassers.”
- Send a talking piece around inviting students to reflect on what this high school senior writes.
- Invite students to share their connections, additions, and reflections on a second and/or third go round.
This may be all you need for a meaningful circle on the topic. But if your students don’t have much to say on the topic (yet), consider reading more of Jessica Melnik’s essay:
“The toxic rape culture that reverberates through the Kavanaugh conversation is echoed in many high schools across our nation. When girls get catcalled or get grabbed in the hallway in school, we are supposed to be flattered. Boys and adults will often defend these actions as meaningless jokes or even compliments that the girl reporting took too seriously. One of my friends was literally told, ‘It is prom season after all, what do you expect?’ It seems as though someone can always find an excuse for the behavior in the ‘boys will be boys’ handbook.”
- Invite students to share their responses to this segment of Jessica Melnik’s essay. What are their thoughts and feelings about what Jessica writes here? How does this relate to their experience at school?
Her essay continues:
“I am now a high school senior. I was hopeful that the #MeToo movement would be a pivotal change in my life as a woman growing up in America. I hoped my adult life would be free of the fear of going out at night by myself, or going on a run past 8 p.m., or daring to tell my harasser I don’t enjoy his actions. I would be free to walk around with my headphones in without fearing that I am missing sounds of danger, or free to wear whatever I feel most confident in. With the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, I saw more and more women come forward in public, and I saw more and more men held accountable for their actions. We were taking steps in the right direction.”
- Send a talking piece around asking: What have the #metoo and #timesup movements meant to Jessica Melnik? What have they meant to you?
Her essay continues:
“Our leaders are supposed to set an example for younger generations. Right now, we are not getting the message we so desperately need. Our nation’s leaders are writing off allegations of sexual assault and misconduct in high school and college as ‘typical teenage behavior.’ High schoolers are hearing this message loud and clear. ‘Boys will be boys,’ and girls should accept that.
We are told that we come forward at ‘inconvenient times,’ as if we deliberately sit in silence so that one day we can come forward when our accuser happens to be a nominee for the Supreme Court of the United States. Yes, President Trump, maybe Dr. Blasey Ford would have come forward sooner had she not been afraid. And instead of making the victims feel safe, they are being re-victimized as they are hearing their leaders dismiss their realities.”
- Send the talking piece around asking: What does Jessica Melnik mean when she talks about the “boys will be boys” message? Why would victims be “revictimized” when their statements or claims are dismissed?
Melnik's essay concludes:
“I will not be silenced. I will not let my younger sister be told that her experiences should be swept under the rug so that her male friends can get their prep school scholarships and their football scholarships, while she sits in silence and fear of coming forward.
Adults; The #TimesUp for you to address these issues in your young people’s lives. Silence is complicity. This issue is not a liberal or conservative issue; it is a moral issue. We are all watching history being written before our eyes; please do not be on the wrong side of it.”
- Send the talking piece around asking: How do you feel about Jessica’s assertive stance in this last part of her essay?
- What message would you want to send to the adults in your life to protect you and your younger siblings, both boys and girls?
- What can we do together to support each other in feeling safe and protected in school?
Invite students to share one thing they would like to say to Jessica Melnik.