My first getting-groped-at-school memory is from Grade 5, at my elementary school on the West Side of Vancouver. I was bent over looking at something and a Grade 7 boy in my triple-split class snuck up behind me, reached down my shirt, and grabbed whatever was there at the time, which wasn’t much.
I was surprised and annoyed. I can’t recall exactly what I said, although remembering 10-year-old me, it was probably, “Fuck off!” What I do remember—vividly—is that he suddenly looked panicked and offered me five bucks not to tell anyone. I wouldn’t be the first girl or woman offered money in exchange for a nondisclosure agreement.
I declined the offer and told him not to do it again. That would be the first—and least disturbing—of my many me-too moments at school.
After hearing news reports of an alleged “groping incident” involving high-school students at a Kitsilano secondary event last week, I started mentally compiling a list of student-to-student sexual assault and harassment I experienced, witnessed, or heard about when I went to school in the 1970s. It’s a long, awful list, and most of the incidents were much uglier and more menacing than the one I brushed off in Grade 5.
Things got better, except they didn’t
By the time my own kids started school, around the turn of the millennium, the buzz was all about social responsibility and positive school culture and I was on a school committee helping draft a student code of conduct. The school principal knew every student—and often their parents—by name, and the teachers and support staff put a huge, coordinated effort into educating kids about being good, respectful citizens. Overt racism seemed to be almost completely eradicated at the elementary-school level, and homophobic remarks were nowhere near as prevalent as they were in my day.
I assumed, wrongly, that my daughter wouldn’t have to deal with the kind of casual, daily misogyny that I did at school.
Yet when she was in Grade 6, going to our neighbourhood Vancouver public school, she told me that some boys in her class said, “Suck my dick,” every time she passed their desks to use the class pencil sharpener. When her friend went by the same boys, they’d say—quietly, so only she could hear it—“Fat ass.”
She told me this with a slight eye roll, a sigh, and a weary shake of the head. The way she said it reminded me of so many friends and coworkers over the years, talking about the everyday sexism and harassment they dealt with and how it ground them down, leaving them fed up, demoralized, and exhausted. Here she was, 11 years old, and already sick of it. Not enough had changed. Not nearly.
I talked to her teacher and she was understanding, concerned, and not surprised. I said I didn’t want to name the boys but hoped there could be some class-wide discussion about respect and consent and that at the very least I wanted all girls to know they shouldn’t have to take that shit whether they were 11, 21, 31, or any age. I wanted the boys to learn they had no right to speak to anyone like that. I figured these were young kids—only 11 years old—and wondered how and why boys learned to talk to girls like that. I hoped that with the right intervention, they would stop.
The alleged “groping” incident at Kitsilano secondary last week
I’ve been thinking about all this in the wake of news reports late last week that the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and the Vancouver School Board (VSB) are investigating what is being described as one or more students groping some other students, apparently during a school function at Kitsilano secondary. Police and school officials are releasing few details but are saying they believe only students were involved.
Kitsilano secondary principal Ranjit Bains emailed parents last Friday afternoon with this brief and vague message:
Dear Parents and Guardians, On Wednesday January 31, our school hosted an evening student dance performance. Following the dance performance there has been an allegation of an incident between students. This incident was reported to school staff and the Vancouver Police and the incident continues to be investigated.
I felt that it was important to give you some information as your son or daughter may wish to discuss the incident with you. If you have any concerns about this, please feel free to contact me.
Given that Vancouver is the world’s biggest small town, it’s been easy to piece together more details based on what I’ve heard from parents of Kitsilano students, although these have not been confirmed by police or the school administration and those who told me about them didn’t want to go on the record.
The story goes something like this: The school’s drama department put on a series of song-and-dance performances to celebrate the completion of the school’s new auditorium. They invited some grades nine and 10 dancers from an East Vancouver school to help with what I hear was an outstanding show. It was an interactive program that involved the audience. There were three performances: one last Tuesday (January 30) for students in younger grades, one on Wednesday night for grades 11 and 12 students, and one on Thursday night for parents and families.
Prior to the Wednesday performance, rumours circulated that some grades 11 and 12 students planned to come to the show drunk. At one point in the show, the guest dancers high-fived audience members. This is when some of the grades 11 and 12 Kits students allegedly groped the grades nine and 10 visiting dance students and possibly some Kits students who were in the show.
Police were notified and they tell me they’re working with the VSB to figure out what happened.
Why did it happen?
In these days of #MeToo and President Grab Her By The Pussy, one can point to all kinds of reasons that led to the alleged groping, ranging from lousy parents to popular culture (ah, the days when I’d come home to hear my then-teenaged son blasting Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit”)—video games, white-male privilege, a culture of misogynistic entitlement, a culture that degrades and dehumanizes girls and women—to the somewhat more benign tendency for adolescents and their developing brains to push boundaries and experiment with identities and behaviours that their adult selves will one day cringe at remembering. Or, heck, it’s a symptom of the toxic masculinity bred by the power structures that underpin late capitalism and its resultant increasing economic inequality. Or all of the above.
Throw all that in with some alcohol and peer pressure, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a toxic “incident”.
Frustrating as the relative silence coming out of the VPD and VSB is for students and parents during the investigation, that’s the way it works, and it’s probably necessary for the integrity of the police investigation. But what’s good for the investigative process may not be so good for the students’ emotional process. If #MeToo has taught us anything, it’s that there’s been way too much silence on matters of sexual assault and harassment. Yet if my sources are accurate, students and parents are being advised to keep quiet while the authorities do their work, and at a time they really need to be able to talk to each other about what happened.
One parent emailed me last weekend to say: “As a community we need to react fast and furiously so that these morons who groped kids don’t become the next batch of Weinsteins. The victims need a ton of love and support. The Kits performers did a tremendous job of decorating the Windermere change rooms, giving cookies and treats and wearing Windermere school colours on that day. I am holding back tears writing this. The question is…where the hell is the school in all this?”
“Where the hell is the school in all this?”
Schools have come a long way, in many respects. The rampant and overt racism and homophobia that thrived in my 1970s high school wouldn’t be tolerated today, neither by school authorities nor by students. Students have become articulate and empowered leaders and positive peer pressure is one of the most effective tools I’ve seen to change school culture for the better.
Instead of telling students to keep quiet and let the authorities do their thing, it’s time to support youth in leading the kind of change that makes drunken groping by teenaged boys as socially unacceptable and abhorrent as it is to be an adolescent homophobe or racist. I suspect some of that is happening already at Kits, but it’s time to scale it up, right across the school system.
The VSB needs to show the kind of leadership and unflinching commitment on this issue that it did in taking the lead with its sexual orientation and gender identity policy. It needs to invite experts to speak and empower students to organize and act.
Given some basic resources—release from class time, funds to book venues and bring in speakers and facilitators, and providing refreshments—students can come together and put together a forum (or several of them) to examine the causes and effects of sexism, sexual harassment and assault, and develop a plan for addressing it. Give them course credit for it. Some may already be doing this at the school level and I know lots of VSB staff do spectacular work in this area.
Silence isn’t the answer, but student empowerment is
I’m of mixed minds when it comes to how to deal with the perpetrators of the alleged incident at Kits, should the investigation find that drunk grades 11 and 12 students groped younger visiting grades nine and 10 dancers and fellow Kits students. Any who were groped need to be supported and empowered and to know that what happened to them was absolutely unacceptable. They should feel free to talk about it with whomever they damn well want. It happened to them. It’s their story.
I believe in restorative justice for children and youth instead of harsh punishments. School discipline should be about learning—taking responsibility and building self-esteem—instead of shaming and excluding youth for poor decisions and behaviour. No one deserves to be defined by their adolescent lapses in judgement, however egregious. Rather, the adults and peers around them need to support them in learning to understand why what they did was wrong and figure out how to make better decisions. I did and said some pretty awful stuff as a teen that I deeply regret now, but I mostly—although not completely— forgive my adolescent self and strive to be better as an adult.
That’s not to say that what we or others do as youth is without long-term or even lifelong consequences for others. Many adults carry emotional scars from what happened to them at school, for years or forever. I hope that the right restorative response to whatever happened at Kits leaves all involved wiser and more empathetic—and unscarred.
If rumours of what happened at Kits last week prove to be true, the school will have the challenge of demonstrating to the school community that what happened is unacceptable and something that will never be tolerated. In my day, if you got caught showing up drunk for a school event, you’d usually get kicked out for good. I don’t think that accomplished anything useful. And while I don’t recall any drunken groping at school events, I imagine the response would have been swift expulsion.
I’d rather see students given a well-supported opportunity to take responsibility for bad choices and behaviours to learn about how being assaulted and harassed affects people. Once they’ve demonstrated they’ve learned that, they need to hear from anyone they touched, groped, grabbed, or whatever if their victims are willing and comfortable doing that in a safe and supportive environment. Then they need to make full and respectful apologies to the students they assaulted.
This may not satisfy outraged parents and students who want to see swift justice and want to see it now. I understand that. However, when we’re dealing with children and youth, there is confidentiality that needs to be respected. From what I’ve seen and heard over the years, the VPD and the VSB do some very good, constructive, and restorative work when dealing with child and youth offenders. The public doesn’t see it because it’s done confidentially. I’ve known students who have done some pretty awful things and have gone through a restorative-style disciplinary process and ended up being decent young adults. Naming, shaming, and excluding, in my opinion, only makes matters worse.
There’s too much I don’t know about the individuals involved and the incident itself to cast judgement on what the school is or isn’t doing. The reported incident is a depressing reminder of how far we haven’t come, but it’s also an opportunity to take systemic action that makes real change. I want girls to respond with outrage and defiance, not the weary, worn-down frustration and resignation I heard from my own daughter and my many friends and coworkers over the years.