Uprooting rape culture

The system that perpetuates sexual violence starts at the ground level, with smaller incidents that crack the facade of everyday life. At the high school, students and administrators are collaborating like never before to address it.

November 16, 2020

In May, the Trump administration announced changes to Title IX, the federal protection against gender discrimination in schools, that would have long-lasting impacts across the country. The changes formally criminalize sexual assault and add a new step to the sexual violence investigation process, allowing both parties to review all testimony and ask each other questions. The Trump administration cited the potential benefits of this new step for the falsely accused, but opponents are concerned that it will discourage disclosures.

For students like seniors Meg Hitchcock-Smith and Alex Noble, the changes came to represent a cog in a much larger machine: rape culture, the system that perpetuates sexual violence. These weren’t independent issues, they decided, but intertwined branches of the trunk of rape culture, and its roots reached Brookline and encircled the high school.

Turning to social media following the implementation of the Title IX changes at the high school, Hitchcock-Smith struck up conversations with many peers and found corroborating accounts of experiencing rape culture at the ground level. But she also heard many stories of survivors who found the strength to come forward and said they felt doubted or unheard by the administration.

A few weeks later, when a recent graduate leveled an accusation of rape against another student, curiosity turned to actionable rage for Hitchcock-Smith and Noble. Wanting to know the scope of the issue, they used social media to reach out, asking students to share stories about sexual violence at the high school. According to Hitchcock-Smith, the outpouring of responses surprised her.

“I’m reading through them, and I just get hit with this emotion I can’t really put a finger on,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “I called one of my mentors from this internship I did, and I told her, ‘I’m sitting here looking at 21 people’s worst moment of their lives right now.’”

Within the next few days, that number grew to 75 student stories, ranging from disclosures of sexual violence to condemnations of the way the administration responded to a friend’s disclosure. For the two seniors, the stories represented a call to action as much as a shocking statistic.

“A lot of them were just really horrible to read,” Noble said. “It ended up making the whole experience a lot more potent for both of us. We felt a duty and an obligation to all of the people that sent in these horrible responses.”

The clear path of action, Noble said, was to bring these stories to the administration and to share that sense of obligation with them. However, it was not easy at first. Because so many of the stories told of doubt, minimization and inadequate action, she and Hitchcock-Smith said they felt uncertain of how the administration would react when they brought their findings forward.

“Having read all of these stories, we felt an even greater sense of distrust with the administration, so it felt like everything was on edge,” Noble said. “But we got together an amazing group of students, we made a huge presentation, we gathered a ton of information from BHS data and accounts from parents and we presented all that to the administration.”

This time, Hitchcock-Smith said, the response they got back was more than adequate. According to Dean of OLS Jenee Uttaro, the presentation, made up of confidential stories from students and statistics from their survey, served as a biting indictment of rape culture at the high school.

“I’ve done rape crisis work for many, many years. Sexual harassment and sexual assault work outside of BHS, at Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) and other places. A little bit inside of BHS as well, but I honestly wanted to keep that part of my life separate to the degree that I could,” Uttaro said. “But hearing from Meg and Alex and the other students who presented that day really compelled and inspired me. I felt like I needed to bring in my years of expertise in this field to Brookline.”

The presentation swayed the administration, Noble said, putting a spotlight on an issue that had long been murky. They were convinced to address what she and Hitchcock-Smith had shown them was clearly in need of it.

As part of that commitment to address sexual violence, administrators agreed to hold annual teacher training days. These days will focus on explaining reporting policies and Title IX procedures. In September, Hitchcock-Smith and Noble were guest speakers at one of these virtual sessions, presenting their view of the student experience to the entire faculty.

“We spoke about how all of this starts way back in middle school and progresses over the years to snowball into this weird conglomerate of rape culture, misogyny, low-self esteem for girls and all of these things that play into each other,” Noble said. “We talked about students’ experiences over the years, and it struck a chord with a lot of teachers.”

Spanish teacher Astrid Allen said that the students’ presentation was impactful because it challenged her assumption about the school’s trustful identity.

“We pride ourselves on having a strong community where the kids can know and trust the adults, and yet this was happening for many years and people didn’t feel safe coming forward,” Allen said. “I want to know what we can do, as a faculty, to promote that trust, so that if something were to happen in our community in the future, students feel comfortable coming forward.”

While some teachers and administrators may have been surprised at the pervasiveness of sexual violence, many students and organizers have learned, often through lived experience, to expect it. For Casey Corcoran, Director of Youth Sexual Violence Prevention Education at BARCC, the question is not whether rape culture exists at any given high school, but what can be done.

“It’s the sea we swim in culturally,” Corcoran said. “So of course it’s present at a high school. I would say that students see and witness examples of rape culture all the time, they just may not be able to identify it as such. We need to give people the tools to identify, label and decode it, because then we can actually deal with it. This is an issue that thrives on darkness, so the more we shine a light on it, the better it’s going to be.”

Hitchcock-Smith and Noble recognized this need as well. Partnering with Uttaro, who has had extensive training in the field, they created Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) Warriors. The program is made up of students, teachers and administrators working together to educate students and address rape culture at the high school.

But to be able to do that effectively, Noble said, SHARP Warriors needs to start by having conversations amongst themselves.

“It’s all about bringing the right energy and honesty. Being radically open about everything. That’s what we’re here to do,” Noble said. “Making that powerful openness really empowers people to take it a step further, to take it outside of the group and to their friend groups, to their families. Ultimately, the goal is to change the culture.”

Hitchcock-Smith said that cultural education is the way to make changes to the climate of the high school, whether that education happens through assemblies, in-class workshops or lessons at middle schools.

“We’ve got a month by month plan on how we’re going to get that done,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “We’re thinking about how we meet with middle schoolers and talk to them about these issues, how we make these conversations happen for younger and younger students so everybody learns it earlier.”

With such grand goals, Uttaro said it has been important for the team to keep many paths of action open.

“We know that changing a culture is not something that happens overnight,” Uttaro said. “We’ve talked about doing a clothesline project, having a group with just men, working with parents. There’s so many things that we’re planning.”

Although many things cannot happen in remote or socially distant learning, SHARP Warriors has been able to put together a trajectory of future projects to chip away at the problem. According to Uttaro, the ability to work with the seniors as equal partners has not happened before and has been uniquely beneficial for everyone.

“There are things that adults and administrators like me can do, but I’m limited because I’m not a senior in high school. We see different things from what you all experience, and you have a voice and a power based on your own personal experiences that I cannot access,” Uttaro said. “At the same time, Meg and Alex are not in the kinds of school policy conversations that I’m in. So they inform what I’m doing, I inform what they’re doing, and we work together like that.”

In Corcoran’s experience, the best way to create changes that last is to work with the administration as SHARP Warriors is doing, reforming policies and creating a safer environment for survivors to come forward. Without the right policy, reporting numbers do not show the whole picture, Corcoran said. The goal should be more reporting and more openness, so that the issue can be tackled head-on.

“This is such an underreported issue, so we know we’re not getting the full numbers,” Corcoran said. “But when we have openness, more students come forward because they know it’s going to be handled well.”

By looking critically at the intersection of policy and cultural climate, Corcoran said, we can find and pull up the roots of the issue, deconstructing stigmas that keep survivors silent.

However, thanks to federal oversight, administrative policy is not flexible enough to make much change. Title IX of the Educations Amendment of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational setting, and has been interpreted to give the federal government control over the way in which a school responds to complaints of sexual violence on their campus, committed against a student survivor (called the complainant in Title IX proceedings) or by a student perpetrator (respondent).

In recent years, the Obama and Trump administrations have issued guidance on specifically what that response must look like. The most recent guidelines were enacted by US Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos on May 7, in the name of justice for the falsely accused. According to Dean of Students Brian Poon, the Title IX Coordinator for the high school, these guidelines will make investigations look more like courtroom proceedings.

“All parts of all testimony are now reviewable by both parties,” Poon said. “You do all of your interviews and then all of your interviews get seen by the other side, and they can provide questions. This, in theory, is about transparency.”

But Poon said the reality may be that this review period, which lasts ten days and ends in cross-examination of each party’s testimonies, acts as a chilling effect and keeps survivors and witnesses silent for fear of retribution, since the respondent would now be able to see and challenge everything the complainant says.

Dr. Maria Letasz, the Director of Guidance and Clinical Services and Title IX Coordinator for the district at large, said that this change could have major impacts on reporting frequency.

“We’re concerned that this process might reduce the number of people who come forward and file a grievance, because we can’t guarantee their anonymity anymore,” Letasz said. “The whole process can be very intimidating for a complainant.”

Though the administration may be concerned about these changes, they can do little to change the logistics of their response at a district level, since Title IX is a federal mandate. Students faced this fact in May when a petition calling for changes to sexual violence policies garnered more than 2,500 signatures.

“Sometimes students feel like they want something done in a certain way, but we actually have a lot of limitations in terms of how we’re able to respond to these things,” Letasz said. “The policy is the cold, formal thing we have to follow, but what we can change is our communication and relationships, and I think that is much more impactful.”

In their focus on education and preparation for any scenario, the approach of SHARP Warriors reflects this need to work around Title IX.

“We can’t rewrite that policy, as much as I want to,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “So SHARP’s work is to be an educational resource, to try to prevent these things from happening in the first place and to make sure people are ready to talk about it if they’re asked to testify. If we can educate people about what shouldn’t be normal and how to talk to their friends about it, then maybe if something does happen people will be more comfortable disclosing what they know and standing by the survivor.”

SHARP Warriors’ emphasis on education extends to the sex education curriculum as well.

“My hope is that we can start teaching kids what consent means in kindergarten. Teach them to say, ‘I don’t want to be touched right now.’ Kids don’t really have spatial boundaries yet, but if we teach them that they can say no that early, then when they get into high school they have a better sense of body autonomy and what they’re comfortable and uncomfortable with,” Hitchcock-Smith said. “That’s the end goal for sex ed. But the starting place, I think, is freshman sex ed and rewriting that curriculum.”

To do that, SHARP Warriors is working with the Brookline Commission for Women (BCW). The team has received support for this project from both the Brookline School Committee (BSC) and Health & Fitness Chair Carlyn Uyenoyama, though no changes have yet been made to the curriculum.

Hadassah Margolis, a Commissioner for the BCW, said that listening is the first step in determining what parts of the curriculum need changing.

“It all comes down to the students and recent alumni who are actually in this culture right now. What are they saying they’re experiencing, what are they saying they need?” Margolis said. “On a more official level, we’re very excited to work with the School Committee and look at the actual sex ed curriculum to see where we can make changes. It’s a combination of deep listening, looking at what’s in place now, finding the gaps and then making those real positive changes.”

Sex education is one path of change that centers around preventative work, addressing a potential issue in students before it even arises. In Boston Public Schools, the Start Strong Initiative has been working since 2008 on preventative programming, and program manager Cin Wong said they see it as the only route to more permanent cultural changes.

“There are a lot of programs that do intervention work, and that’s critical. But if we’re thinking about this as a public health issue, you can’t think about public health without thinking about prevention,” Wong said. “How do we connect with populations before they even get to that intervention point? If we want to create long standing organizational change and attitudinal shifts, we need to do prevention work.”

Those impressible populations are not found in freshman health classes, Corcoran said.

“I often work with colleges around sexual violence prevention, and folks will ask how we prevent sexual violence on campus, and I say that what we need to do is work with middle schoolers. Because otherwise, if you start that education in high school or college, you’re practicing the fire drill during the fire,” Corcoran said. “There are concrete skills they can learn: to deconstruct the media, to understand rape culture, to practice effective bystander intervention and to have empathy skills before they even get to the point where the violence is occurring.”

But Corcoran said high school students still have crucial roles to play in the education of younger students.

“A middle school student doesn’t look up to a college student because they don’t see themselves in them. They’re going to look up to high schoolers as role models and examples,” Corcoran said. “If you’re talking about these issues, if you’re being understanding, if you’re taking a stand when someone tells a rape joke, they’re watching and they’re learning that behavior.”

Contributed Reporting by Anoushka Mallik.

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