School, Interrupted Part 3: 'Til It Happens To You
Sexual misconduct happens in every school. Yes, that’s a scary thought — more so when we can all agree that schools should be safe havens where kids can focus on learning without having to worry about being assaulted.
But the numbers don’t lie. During the 2017-2018 school year, 115 instances of sexual assault in K-13 schools were reported in North Carolina alone. That number doesn’t include 70 more instances of a sexual offense, and one instance of rape.
But this is actually not a story about what’s been reported — quite the contrary. This is a story about what goes unreported and why.
During September 2019, our Radio 101 students surveyed over 300 of their peers. Among the questions asked, there was this one: “In the past 12 months, have you experienced unwanted sexual advances at school?” And it was on the follow-up that we started to notice a trend. Almost 90 percent of those who have experienced unwanted sexual advances at school did not report it to anyone. Here are some of the reasons why:
“I don’t want to draw attention to it.”
“Nothing would be done.”
“Had to get over it.”
“It wasn’t that serious. Just a restriction of freedom for a while.”
“I’m too scared.”
“I felt it wouldn’t be taken care of because I’m a female and it’s my word against his.”
According to Monika Johnson-Hostler, Executive Director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, it should not surprise us to hear these answers from survivors.
“Schools are just microcosms of our natural societal habitat. We are not cautious about the way that we talk about sexual violence. We're not cautious around the way that we believe survivors. We ask questions like, 'what happened before? What did you do to deserve this? Did they think that you wanted this? Well, the first time that they made a sexual comment to you, did you tell them that you didn't like it?' We call all these things into question whereas an individual, with anything that happens to us whether it's sexual in nature or not, we believe them.”
According to Johnson-Hostler, this very common line of inquiry calls into question the survivor’s behavior and not the abuser’s. This creates a culture in which the survivor doesn’t want to come forward because they know they won’t be believed, and the perpetrator continues with their behavior because they know they’ll get away with it.
All of this creates a dilemma for schools everywhere. As Johnson-Hostler explains, in order to change the culture, there first needs to be an acknowledgment that there is a problem, and most schools are not ready to admit that yet.
“We often think, if we acknowledge that something's wrong, that that makes us bad and people won't, you know, won't go there. This is what we’ve heard from campuses and military, and all the systems that we've worked with over the last decade. And that may be true. But saying you don't have these problems, and not disclosing this means that people are getting hurt.”
However, some schools across the state are doing something about it. According to Johnson-Hostler, programs like Shifting Boundaries and Safe Date are curriculum-based programs that are being implemented in some schools in Chapel Hill, New Hanover County, and Franklin County to name a few. These programs aim to provide both students and administrators with the language to talk about sexual misconduct, and more importantly, to listen.
“We have to actually be very intentional about the ... practices in schools. Like you know, listening to students. If students say, in this hallway, under the staircase, this is where we know these things to happen. Well, then how do schools address that? Do they have closer monitoring there? Or do they draw attention to this as a place that's not safe at our school?”
As of today, there’s no statewide push to implement these types of programs. It is up to each school district and county. This probably means that the change in culture that Johnson-Hostler hopes for might not happen anytime soon.
If you have been a victim of sexual misconduct at school and would like to share your experience, let us know. We want to hear from you! You can leave us a voice message here. We’ll feature some of your stories on our website.