Schools need to educate our sons and daughters that no means no

Students cross a street to enter for the first day of classes at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, U.S. August 15, 2018.  REUTERS/Joe Skipper - RC1EFE4D0510
Editor's note:

This post originally appeared in The Hechinger Report; the version below has been lightly edited for style and content.

“I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team.”

That was Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh defending himself last week before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In emotional testimony, he rebutted the charge of sexual assault levied at him by Christine Blasey Ford, who he knew when they both attended elite high schools in the Washington, D.C., area.

Being accused of sexual assault, regardless of when it happened, is horrific, especially if you didn’t do it, as Kavanaugh claims. It is to be hoped that the weeklong FBI investigation that has been ordered will shed some light on the truth, but in the meantime, Kavanaugh’s words speak volumes.

Attaining good grades in school should not excuse boys’ abhorrent behavior outside of it. Character is more about what you do with your smarts than acing tests or being admitted into Yale Law School, even if it is among the most selective in the country, as Kavanaugh protested. Grades, good or bad, aren’t a measure of character. Academic achievement is no guarantee of decency. Kavanaugh’s protestations to the contrary—and the corresponding implication that people who don’t have Ivy League certificates on their wall are somehow lesser—prove that high tuition can’t purchase integrity.

Nothing is more damning of an education’s utter failure than the fact that so many graduates, mostly male, receive good grades and yet don’t recognize (or accept) that no means no.

Third-grade teacher Elizabeth Kleinrock works hard to inculcate respect of boundaries in her charges. In an editorial for Teaching Tolerance, a social justice and anti-bias organization, she writes, “[O]ne of the first social emotional topics covered is the importance of keeping our hands and feet to ourselves and respecting others’ personal space.” But whether Kleinrock is an anomaly, or whether such lessons aren’t reinforced throughout boys’ school tenure, respecting personal space is a message that hasn’t been heard loud enough thus far. Some could argue that schools are not responsible for all of individuals’ social behaviors, and they’re not. However, schools do have a role to play in teaching basic notions of consent and respect for the word “no.”

Kavanaugh’s giant leap in logic—offering up his prestigious educational credentials in response to an allegation of sexual assault—only makes sense in a culture that teaches students to think of schools as jobs that pay in grades. I, too, have been guilty of comparing school to a workplace, bypassing social-emotional content for the currency that gets you into college. In this world, children supposedly meet their employment expectations if they get into college, and academic achievement is the most important indicator of who they are.

Clearly, a boy can go to school, get good grades, party irresponsibly, and assault women. As the saying goes, it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. It should be obvious that grades can’t and shouldn’t be thought of as bail for boys’ criminal behavior, but they never tire of trying it anyway.

And this is far from the first time. In January 2015, Brock Turner, a Stanford University student, sexually assaulted an unconscious woman before being stopped by two men who happened to catch sight of him. In a letter to the judge who oversaw Turner’s sentencing, his father pleaded for leniency, writing that his son should not be punished severely for “20 minutes of action.”

Let alone that the act that Turner senior mischaracterized as “action” was actually rape, or that the number of minutes the assault lasted does not lessen the gravity or criminality of the behavior. What is perhaps most astounding was that Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky, a Stanford alum, seemed to be persuaded by that argument, sentencing Turner to a mere six months in prison instead of the minimum of two years prescribed by law (or the longer sentence asked for by the prosecution). The judge delivered the lightest of sentences, saying that he believed a longer stint behind bars would have a “severe impact” on Turner’s future. He did not seem to consider the impact of being raped on the victim, though she refused to be silenced. The rapist, a champion swimmer, a student at Stanford, a white man, ended up serving only three months before being released early for “good behavior.”

In this case, white privilege was put on trial, and white privilege won. Nothing could be clearer proof of this than a comparison with another case Persky had decided, in 2014, in which he gave three years to a Latino immigrant similarly convicted of sexual assault.

Too often, the treatment meted out to black and white men is starkly different. Indeed, Santa Clara County authorities didn’t release Turner’s mug shot till until 16 months after his arrest, something that feels inconceivable had he been black. But last week Kavanaugh trod in Clarence Thomas’ footsteps, the sitting Supreme Court justice who had been accused of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. As the outcome of both hearings show, both enjoyed the privilege afforded to powerful men.

We have too many cases that illustrate how the toxic “boys will be boys” mantra is passed down through our educational system to the world of politics—recall the “Access Hollywood” video that almost felled Donald Trump’s shot at the presidency, which was dismissed as “locker room talk”—and even to the legal system. Dismantling the structural sexism that privileges men begins in school. Schools are not businesses, a place of contractual transactions; they are the sites for much deeper personal development. We have to teach our boys that they are capable of decent, respectful behavior toward girls (and, indeed, other boys). We expect better of them, and if they fail to understand or accept that no means no, they will have to face the music.

It’s never too early to teach children about consent, Kleinrock says. “As a class, we define consent as ‘saying yes to letting someone do something,’” she writes in her editorial. It’s not sex they’re talking about, of course. “Instead, we talk about safe physical interactions that occur daily in the classroom and outside at recess, and how to communicate your personal boundaries with those around you.”

Though a vote on Kavanaugh’s full confirmation has been delayed pending the FBI investigation, we cannot tolerate any delay in teaching students that no does indeed mean no.