Opportunities and Approaches to Facilitating Conversations About Sexual Assault in K-12 Classrooms

The process for confirming a new U.S. Supreme Court justice typically offers an opportunity for classroom discussion regarding the fundamentals of American democracy. The sexual assault scandal surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, however, has forced teachers across the country to navigate a far more challenging conversation with their students. In recent weeks, educators have found themselves leading discussions about a wide range of pressing issues — from what constitutes consent to the potential lifelong consequences of teenage actions.

For teachers who are survivors of sexual assault, facilitating conversations about this issue can cause considerable anxiety and personal distress. According to a June 2018 survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center, 25 percent of female and 6 percent of male teachers at the K-12 level reported having experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job. Of this group, 60 percent said they did not report their experience to authorities.

Given that these conversations can be triggering for both teachers and students who have experienced sexual violence, it is important to find ways to conduct meaningful discussion about this topic while being sensitive to the fact there may be survivors in the classroom.  Jennifer Rich,assistant professor in Rowan University’s College of Education, suggests giving students time to journal and then discuss what they have written in small groups. This approach allows teachers to circulate and listen while remaining on the periphery of the discussion. Before opening up a dialogue, it is important to remind students that this topic can be triggering for some and to set ground rules for a constructive debate that allows room for respectful disagreement, Rich told Education Week.

Beyond discussion of the Kavanaugh debate, many educators may also be wondering how they can address and support the #MeToo movement in their classrooms. One way is to incorporate lessons about consent into behavioral guidelines — for example, teaching young children how to politely ask permission for a toy, or instructing teenagers to ask an upset classmate if they want a hug instead of assuming that the person wants to be touched. In turn, some recommend that educators avoid physical contact with their students — with the possible exceptions of fist-bumps or high-fives.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group for reproductive health, a majority of states do not require training on consent and coercion as part of formal sex education programs. Teachers may want to fill in the gaps by dedicating a lesson to the topic. They should make clear that consent is not a negotiation process and that a “yes” can be revoked at any time, said Rich.

Rich — whose research focuses on helping educators lead inclusive discussions about difficult topics — says that schools in many ways contribute to confusing ideas about consent and responsibility. Dress codes, for example, send the message to young women that it is their responsibility to not tempt male students. By leading honest discussion about these inadvertent messages, and choosing not to police students for how they dress, educators can play an important role in helping students learn to respect women regardless of what they choose to wear.

Another way for teachers to support the national conversation about sexual assault is to expose students to age-appropriate literature about the topic. The acclaimed young adult novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson tackles many conflicts regarding sexual assault, similar to those that arose during the Kavanaugh hearing. These include difficulty finding corroborating witnesses and the reluctance of young survivors to tell their families about assault.

Attempting to foster dialogue about a topic like sexual violence can be extremely taxing, which is why teachers should practice self-care while undertaking this effort. While educators may feel obligated to stay abreast of current events, the 24-hour news cycle can be a major source of anxiety and stress for many Americans, according to the American Psychological Association. Mental health experts therefore recommend limiting time spent consuming news media, especially when it comes to coverage of topics related to personal trauma. In addition, asking for help and collaborating with colleagues when it comes to discussion tactics and lesson planning around current events can alleviate the burden on individual teachers to guide students’ understanding of these sensitive issues.