Seven years as a social worker has taught me that success and well-being doesn’t have much to do with academics or IQ if emotional intelligence is lacking. Mental health, Adverse Childhood Experiences, and violence all interfere with excelling. In fact, Maslow tells us if a child or teen does not feel safe or regulated, they have great difficulty learning.
These are facts that ran through my mind while I swiped past dozens of social media posts regarding an incident of sexual assault and harassment at my former high school, Kellenberg Memorial and their Joseph C. Fox Latin School, the 6th through 8th grade school in the same building. These details were later confirmed when I came across the letter sent to the school’s administration by the survivor’s distraught, disappointed mother. Apparently, a 12 year old girl was harassed online and at school for weeks by classmates. Two of these boys soon cornered her in the hallway at school and forcibly touched her inappropriately. She mustered up the courage to tell a trusted teacher on a Monday. On Wednesday of that same week, the boys were emptying out their lockers... only to return to school the following Monday.
The boys were back in school after only two days of suspension and only four full school days after the incident was reported. At this moment, they have not been expelled. The girl’s family, who have other alumni children, chose to withdraw their daughter from Kellenberg for her own well-being.
Let it be known to Kellenberg students, families, staff and alumni – this is not about debating the details regarding this particular incident. We would agree that the victim and her family have been through enough. It’s about the response (or lack thereof) and how it perpetuates a culture that makes it okay to disrespect girls. It’s about how female students had feelings about this and perhaps even experiences similar to this, and their feelings were swept under the rug along with this incident. This is not okay.
This type of response is one that needs much more attention given that many Catholic schools do not receive federal funding and are therefore exempt from Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Due to their beliefs, Catholic schools also will only discuss abstinence which leaves kids heading off to college with often dangerously little to no accurate knowledge of consent, gender issues and/or what is a violation of their rights. A scary pill to swallow given that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. Catholic schools need to learn how to properly navigate a conversation that both acknowledges the discrimination girls face and validates their feelings regarding it instead of dismissing or ignoring it. This should be of relevant interest for Kellenberg, a school in the Marianist tradition which looks to Mary (a woman) as a model. There are numerous Bible passages that can be utilized to have this conversation in a moral, appropriate, synergistic way.
In a Catholic school culture where there are announcements about things such as the repercussions of short hair and kids getting expelled for school pranks, there was no expulsion nor a message directly given to the students regarding the severity of inappropriate touching or harassing another person. Sexual harassment (words) and sexual assault (actions) are both human rights violations.
It is common for men and boys to downplay these human rights violations and not understand them given the implicit messages boys and girls are given since birth. These include messages of: boys will be boys, she must have been flirting with him, her skirt was too short, don’t distract the boys, she was exaggerating etc. I observed male Kellenberg students on social media devalue and dismiss the very real, similar experiences girls were sharing. Unaware that research shows only 2 - 8% of sexual assault reports are lies and that three-to-four girls are sexually abused prior to college. I observed female Kellenberg students on social media fear wearing a ribbon to stand up for girls’ rights (i.e. the right to not be sexually harassed or assaulted) because they may get in trouble. How will we birth the next generation of leaders if they fear asserting themselves and standing up for what they believe is right and moral? Doesn’t teaching abstinence and respect for each other’s bodies go hand-in-hand?
The most painful questions include whether the response from this incident will cause girls to stay silent when they need help. The girls who observe teachers saying, “I can’t talk about that.” Girls who live in a society that tells them to protect themselves (which incites and perpetuates victim shaming when incidents do occur) instead of telling boys not to objectify or sexually harass/assault girls. It’s painful to think that a boy may make a comment about a girl’s body and cause her to shrink down, in her seat, thinking it’s okay. Thinking it’s because of something she did.
What gave me hope was observing the brave girls who were willing to educate others about these issues and stand up for Sexual Assault Awareness as a whole by wearing ribbons. To me, these are the girls illustrating the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:11) and the she who rises (Proverbs 31:15).
Catholic school administrators, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I implore you to not perpetuate a culture of inequality and to explicitly address gender discrimination, sexual harassment and assault in your handbooks, protocols, education and messages to your students. I ask that you ensure there is mental health support, sensitivity, and go-to staff in your building who can help your students reach their greatest potential. Students and alumni, continue to stand up and educate yourselves by visiting sites such as RAINN and It’s On Us. If you or someone you know has been a victim, you are NOT alone. Call 800.656.HOPE. It’s on all of us.
Update: After no additional response from the school administration, a petition has been started to advocate for a change in school policy. Show your support by viewing and signing here.