The Reality Behind “Scary Ideas”: Widespread Sexual Violence in our Schools

About three weeks ago, fourteen boys were arrested at my high school alma mater for sexually assaulting two of their classmates. The story of these assaults and the subsequent arrests were covered in the New York Times on March 19, 2015. This is not the first time that national media has covered a school I am affiliated with for sexual violence—I am a senior at Brown University, which has recently been featured in many wellknown publications for its mishandling of sexual assault cases and ongoing Title IX investigation.

For many, these stories are shocking. They cannot believe that such violence can happen in schools among such young students, uninitiated in the real world. These feelings of shock seem premised on the idea that educational institutions exist separately from the violence that plagues the rest of the world. The article from the Times about my high school describes it as a “picture-perfect campus” with a “diverse student body” that is “rich with pride.” For Brown, a school with a national reputation, the work of establishing it as an idyllic institution does not need to be done by journalists; invoking the words “Ivy League” and falling back on the school’s self-projected image is enough.

While casting educational institutions in an idyllic light certainly highlights the horrific nature of sexual violence by contrast, it also obscures the glaring fact that instances of sexual violence are neither incidental nor discrete, but are instead fundamental components of schools across the nation. In order to address this problem on the scale that it exists, sexual violence must be understood as pervasive, with close links between those assaults that happen in college and those that happen in high school.

One of the most well known and consistent statistics over decades on a variety of campus types (public and private, large and small, etc.) is that one in five women in college will experience sexual violence during their time at an undergraduate institution. A leading expert on perpetrators of sexual assault and forensic psychologist, David Lisak writes, “the most powerful predictor of sexual assault during college was a history of having committed sexual assault in high school.”

We must recognize these educational institutions as sites where violence takes place. When the violence is framed as surprising and individual, the vast number of students that are assaulted each year is obscured and fodder provided to those who would hinder efforts to confront the issue on broader scale.

A salient and  recent example quickly comes to mind. On March 21, 2015, New York Times contributing writer, Judith Shulevitz, wrote an opinion piece titled “In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas.” She opens the article quoting two Brown sexual assault activists, Katherine Byron and Emma Hall, who have devoted a significant amount of time to advocating for survivors of sexual assault by setting up safe spaces for discussion of the problem at Brown. These safe spaces discourage statements that might be traumatizing for survivors of assault. As one example of traumatic rhetoric, one speaker who came to Brown last fall told survivors of assault that they would never be “whole”  people again. This is the type of language Hall and Byron seek to offer alternatives to.

They have researched policy and engaged in long and painstaking conversations with faculty, students, and administrators to make more spaces at Brown safer for survivors of sexual assault. Their work has made the enormously burdensome tasks of reporting assaults, seeking academic and residential accommodations, and making other decisions significantly more accessible to survivors. This work to educate people and create safe spaces is a critical part of larger movements aimed at improving schools across the country.

Shulevitz instead figures these and other efforts towards safe spaces as a manifestation of a particular brand of hypersensitivity, rooted in naïve understandings of danger, violence, and trauma; a framing made possible only when one willfully ignores the violence that happens in schools. She paints Byron, Hall, and other activists as threatening to the mission of intellectual freedom in schools because she does not see how sexual violence in these schools is already silencing many, with a brand of silencing more violent, coercive, and secretive than the open cancellation of a talk.

The idea that providing alternative programming or issuing a critique of an event is somehow silencing or making schools too comfortable, is simply ridiculous. As I highlighted in another piece written last semester, schools are fundamentally based on the idea of rigorous knowledge production. They should be ready and willing to act when proponents of well-known, unsound, and violent ideologies attempt to peddle their half baked thoughts on campuses.

Survivors of sexual assault face enough barriers when considering speaking up about their experiences. Many do not say anything because they fear not being believed, not having enough evidence, and not being supported. They are silent because they fear retaliation by their assailants. They say nothing because many do not want to put off graduation or take time away from their school work in order to pursue a lengthy adjudication process that may not be decided in their favor. The solution is not to tell them their fears and trauma are groundless. They do not need people telling them to toughen up and stop “hiding from scary ideas.” They need safety, support, and justice.

Many who are shocked by revelations of sexual assault in schools ask, “Where do we go from here?” Recognizing the widespread nature of this violence in schools might be a good start.


Featured image credit to Danielle Perelman.

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