One of my friends called me the other day to discuss a situation at his school. He is the coach of the boys’ basketball team and a teacher at a junior high school, and he was deeply disturbed by a situation that involved some of the boys on his team. As it turned out, a few of the boys decided it would be funny to scare a much younger girl, so one of them went up to her and started screaming at her while the other boys sat around and watched. It wasn’t long before another teacher broke up the mob, but the damage was already done. The girl was alone and scared and these boys were given a few stern words and sent to class.
Since the boys were all on the basketball team, that seemed the best place to punish these boys for their inappropriate behavior. It was decided that the boys would be suspended from several games, despite pleading from the girls’ parents for harsher punishments. My friend wanted to dismiss the students from the team, but his administration deemed that punishment too harsh, so he went ahead with the suspensions.
My friend was concerned that it was cases like this one that worked toward perpetuating rape culture in our society, and lead to cases like the one in Steubenville, OH where members of the high school football team raped a girl and their coach defended them. I absolutely agree. Rape culture is a problem in our society in general, but it starts when students are defended or championed — or, in this case, punished too lightly — for their actions against women. If students can be educated on this before it is too late, we have a much better chance of ending rape culture once and for all. What follows are four ways that schools can start to end rape culture now.
Bullying vs. Harassment
This situation my friend was in is disturbing in many ways, but mostly because these boys were treated as bullies rather than harassers. Bullying is a huge problem in our schools today, and is something that teachers and administrators are working tirelessly to eradicate. However, harassment can often look a lot like bullying and, surprisingly, the punishments for bullies are often lighter than those for harassment. These boys were picking on this girl, to be sure, but the mob mentality of the boys watching it happen, and the fact that these older boys chose to attack a much younger girl point directly to harassment. The first step in stopping rape culture is to recognize the fine line between bullying and harassment and punish students accordingly.
After harassment has been defined and proven, schools must adopt a zero tolerance policy toward offenders. We live in a society that too often wants to coddle students and give out positive reinforcement for good behavior rather than negative punishment for bad behavior. Unfortunately, there is no feasible way to positively reinforce students who don’t harass students, so punishment is necessary. Schools should adopt a zero tolerance policy for harassment, and it should be made clear to students that these types of behaviors will not go unnoticed, nor will they go unpunished.
Present a United Front
Zero tolerance policies only work when everyone is on board. If you have an administration or teacher that gives one punishment to one student and a different punishment to another student, which often happens with athletes, students get the message loud and clear that certain student get special privileges. What this tells them is that the crimes aren’t really that bad. When adopting any policy, teachers and administrators need to work together to implement it, which means talking and reviewing old cases to ensure consistency before punishment is doled out.
Never Blame the Victim
The most shocking part about the Steubenville, OH case were the words of one of the coaches after the rape was discovered. He said, “The rape was just an excuse, I think… What else are you going to tell your parents when you come home drunk like that and after a night like that?” Fortunately, my friend’s administrators didn’t blame the victim, but they certainly tried to twist her words to make the situation seem like less than it actually was. Victim blaming is one of the most terrible things anyone can do, and if schools or coaches do it, we as a society tend to think that it’s okay.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Albert