Updated: Feb 5, 2020
I can’t sit still about this. Just a few minutes ago, a Washington Post news story came up on my screen telling about a group of high school girls confronting their male classmates for circulating one of those lists that ranks the appearance of female schoolmates. The story ends in a long meeting where the girls confront the boys and the boy who started the list is appropriately contrite. You’re supposed to have a feel-good moment.
I didn’t feel good. I felt furious. That’s because the school acted very badly in this story—and the Post journalist said nothing about their dereliction of duty.
When the girls found out about the list, a group of them did exactly what you would expect them to do, go to the school administration and complain. The administration’s advice was the same that every member of the #METOO movement has heard from HR—they told the girls not to talk about it!
The next day, the girls “learned” (were they told by the school or was it gossip?) that, after “an investigation,” the school had quietly given one boy a single day of detention that would not appear on his school record. (This school was in Chevy Chase/Bethesda, the same neighborhood that brought you Brett Kavanaugh.)
The Post goes on to tell that the girls were not satisfied with this cowardly and complicit handling of the matter, so 40 of them showed up the next day to demand stronger action. A larger “Come to Jesus” meeting was held that lasted two hours. During that time, the girls stood up and told their stories of harassment, while the boys were made to listen.
The boy who had originated the list was made known and shamed out, right there in front of everybody. God bless him, he owned his error. He explained that he just wasn’t thinking when he started the list and that he knew now it had been wrong. He said he fully understood the way he had contributed to a toxic environment and that he would never do anything like that again. He made a graceful admission of guilt, seemingly from the heart. That did make me feel good. That boy’s parents should be proud: he is growing into a man, not a jerk.
But think a little more about it. All this boy did was to write the original list, a very abbreviated version of the final, mathematically-elaborate one that eventually circulated on social media. The boy who was blamed did not know how the list came to be circulated. So, apparently, none of the boys who either shared or added to that list experienced any form of reckoning at all. No wonder this neighborhood is exporting entitled white males into the larger society.
But what really has my head exploding is that there was no moment of reckoning for those who were supposed to be “the adults in the room.” The journalist who wrote the piece never even circled back to see if the administrators and teachers had learned their lesson. So their craven way of operating will continue to crank out more toxicity for the girls and deny other boys a chance to grow into gracious men.
Sexual harassment is not something most boys learn at home. The usual demon blamed is the media. I’m saying they learn it at school. It develops from early boys-versus-girls (and girls-versus-boys) behavior that is shaped and amplified by teachers and principals who let the boys get away with bullying, but insist the girls learn to stay silent and endure “boys being boys.” Until primary and secondary educators have their own “Come to Jesus” moment, this kind of behavior is never going to stop.