Sexual harassment at ASL

May 12, 2021

Fallon* said the school is far from immune to incidents of sexual harassment.

“Whenever you walk down the hallways, you can kind of always hear a conversation here and there with boys saying, ‘Oh yeah she’s hot,’ ‘She’s such a s**t’ or ‘I would give her like an eight out of 10,’” Fallon said.

Furthermore, Fallon said these unwanted sexual comments, directed towards or about people, constitute an unsafe environment.

“It’s definitely very uncomfortable, especially because it feels like you’re almost watching that girl be violated,” Fallon said. “You feel so powerless because it feels uncomfortable to say anything to them.”

Assistant Principal Natalie Jaworski said sexual harassment is present at ASL because it is a byproduct of the problem on a global scale.

“If we look at any sort of major problem in society, of course those things are going to resonate throughout our little slice of society here,” Jaworski said. “It happens here overtly and covertly every day.”

Ellie Mankarious (’21) said the problem of sexual harassment is amplified and “even more dangerous” on account of the progressive culture often associated with the school community. 

“When you believe that you’re so advanced and so progressive and then a problem emerges, you make it into a one-off situation and just think, ‘Oh, no, that’s just that person. It’s not our community,’” Mankarious said. “You’re really just sweeping this massive problem under the rug so that you don’t have to improve yourself and improve your community.”

Fallon recalled that even in the Middle School, sexual harassment was a prevalent issue, specifically with boys participating in sexually explicit games and behaviors.

“I remember they would slap the back of girls’ thighs, which I later learned meant you wanted to sleep with her,” Fallon said. “I also remember that whenever a girl would walk down the hallways, they would stand in pairs or groups of three and discuss if the girl walking by was a top or bottom, which basically meant if she was more sexually attractive on her top or her bottom.”

In order to confront the issue and bring attention to its severity, the school held an assembly in the Middle School where girls shared their experiences. After the assembly, Fallon said discussion surrounding the topic improved because “victims realized that so many other people had gone through the exact same thing and that it wasn’t just them.”

Grade 7 English Teacher Tracy Steege said issues surrounding sexual harassment in the Middle School came to her attention when a student approached her about an incident. She said the student discussed her experience with friends and uncovered the prevalence of sexual harassment, which then spurred the creation of a lunchtime support group in 2017.

Steege said the commonality of boys saying “very sexually explicit things” to girls incentivized the group to organize an assembly to “take their power back.” 

“They were so brave and put together this whole thing about sharing and educating that was just incredibly powerful,” Steege said. “I didn’t want to have any voice in that assembly because it was so important that it came from them.”

Moreover, Mairead Doherty (’23) said sexual harassment is “100% a problem in the High School” and is “so bad but nobody ever addresses it.” She said students harass without fear of repercussions.

“In terms of things that happen inside the school, guys talk very sexually literally in front of me and my friends because they think nothing is going to happen,” Doherty said. “They will talk about girls like ‘look at her a**,’ ‘look at her boobs’ and ‘look at her body.’”

Laeticia Perrin (’23) said she remembers an incident last year in which boys engaged in a group chat discussing the physical appearance of girls, which she said ultimately had major implications for the girls involved.

When you believe that you’re so advanced and so progressive and then a problem emerges, you make it into a one-off situation and just think, ‘Oh, no, that’s just that person. It’s not our community.’”

— Ellie Mankarious ('21)

“In the moment, one of my friends that had been talked about felt disgusted by herself because of the way they talked about her,” Perrin said. “It’s just incredible the impact they had on girls in our school.”

Max Olsher (’21) said misogynistic and sexist comments are a prominent part of the school culture.

“With my experience of being in places like boys locker rooms or on boys sports teams or spaces that have no women in them, oftentimes talk about women is massively just disgusting,” Olsher said. “Even when there are spaces with women in them, no one is standing up against objectification of women or misogyny.”

Malak Yamani (’23) said sexual harassment among members of the student body not only occurs within the school but extends beyond its walls.

“At a lot of parties, there have been so many incidents where a bunch of vulnerable girls get groped and the boys would then blame it on being drunk or not being in the right state of mind,” Yamani said. “That’s the excuse they use to do what they want to do. Even just around school, the things that you would hear guys say about girls are disgusting. They literally only look at girls for their bodies.”

Doherty said remedying this “violating and shame-inducing” behavior is easier said than done.

“When it really comes down to it, there’s not much you can do,” Doherty said. “Hardly any girls will interfere because they’re scared. They’re not only scared to be talked about themselves, but also it’s high school and people don’t want to be the one to go out in the crowd and say ‘stop talking that way.’”

Mankarious said there is a “tendency at ASL to avoid topics that are controversial,” which she said hinders real progress.

“There are conversations in these clubs, programs and even many classes which aim to target these topics, but then there’s always this line that can’t be crossed,” Mankarious said. “You’re never going to actually deconstruct this system of oppression against women if you don’t cross that line.”

Alec Anderson (’22) said some members of the school community justify its failure to acknowledge the pervasiveness of sexual harassment through comparison to “less progressive” societies.

“People dismiss sexual harassment by saying, ‘Oh, well look at the women in these countries that are facing a lot more inequality than the women in more progressive societies like ASL and London,’ yet it’s so problematic in our community even while subtle,” Anderson said.

Yurin said part of the reason teenage boys neglect the issue of sexual harassment instead of facing it head-on is largely because they do not believe men have a responsibility to bring about change.

“When you say to a teen boy that rape is an issue and that men are harassing girls, they get really defensive about it because they’re not doing it, which is fair enough,” Yurin said. “But also, it’s just important to admit that, you know, while it’s not all men, it’s enough girls to be taking action.”

Olsher also said the school ought to play a major role in supporting students who experience sexual harassment.

“If someone comes to the school saying they’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted by another student, that student needs to face consequences,” Olsher said. “When the school is put into a position of punishing their students for horrible behavior, they need to step up and take that role because students are trusting them with their wellbeing.”

Mankarious said the school should strive for transparency and emphasize that sexual harassment comes with consequences. 

Zainab Shafqat Adil

“It’s just about being less secretive, more open and making sure people understand that if they sexually harass somebody else, there’s going to be repercussions for that,” Mankarious said. “It’s not just going to be like, ‘Oh, because you have a lot of money, because you’re a senior, because you’re this, because you’re that,’ that you’re going to get away with it.”

Perrin said girls experiencing sexual harassment feel uncomfortable approaching adults within the school about incidents. Reflecting on her own experience with sexual harassment, she deemed the school support system ineffectual.

“I talked about some of my personal issues with the school and they’ve just called my parents when I didn’t ask them to do that,” Perrin said. “My parents were then like, ‘Oh, you’re lying. You just made it up.’ I trusted them, and while I understand they have to do certain things as adults, it just wasn’t helpful.”

Director of Student Support Services and Designated Safeguarding Lead Belinda Nicholson said disclosure of sexual harassment to parents tends to be “very complex” and requires “balancing the needs of the victim with the risk associated to what they’re talking about.”

Consequently, Nicholson said helping students who have been sexually harassed typically involves reaching out to family and guardians.

Jaworski said the school has two primary responsibilities when dealing with sexual harassment incidents.

“As a school, when things happen between students, we need to know that they’re happening, but we also need to think about our obligation as a learning institution to say, ‘Okay, here’s the mistake and here’s how we learn from it,’” Jaworski said.

From a safeguarding perspective, Nicholson said the school has a legal obligation to report incidents of sexual assault to the police. However, she said for incidents of sexual harassment, the administration uses a flowchart that includes a variety of possible allegations to determine the next course of action.

Thus, Nicholson said she encourages students to report incidents to the school or seek help from an alternative source, such as a trusted adult or a helpline. She said students can report incidents by reaching out to any member of the Safeguarding Team, whose names are displayed on posters throughout the school.

Even when there are spaces with women in them, no one is standing up against objectification of women or misogyny.”

— Max Olsher ('21)

In addition, following the critical response email sent by Head of School Robin Appleby addressing the rise in sexual harassment incidents across the country, Nicholson said the administration plans to further educate faculty and parents about sexual harassment as well as conduct a school-wide survey to identify potential “holes” in sexual harassment education. 

“Part of the work that I’m doing right now is to really go back and do some deliberate education of our faculty about our own implicit bias around gender dynamics, expectations and norms and make sure that we’re creating safe spaces for our kids,” Nicholson said. 

Nicholson said working with student groups, such as the Social Justice Council and the Gender Sexuality Alliance, is also imperative to understanding the student perspective and fostering a culture in which community members feel comfortable speaking up. 

“Abuse and oppression thrives in silence,” Nicholson said. “There’s no healing when someone suffers in silence. We have a responsibility as a school to take seriously every single allegation and to support our victims.”

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