My High School Students Sexually Harassed Me
With the start of 2019, came Round two of the Me Too movement and the inevitable question: “Why didn’t she speak up sooner?”
But the truth is, she did speak up.
I, too, was sexually harassed. My perpetrators—my very own students.
As a twenty-two year old high school teacher, I knew that teaching upperclassmen wouldn’t be easy, but nothing could have prepared me for the level of harassment that was about to ensue.
In my Journalism class of junior and senior boys, I was sexually harassed on a daily basis. It began with typical inappropriate comments, such as “Hey, since you’re not much older, wanna be my prom date?” or “You’re like the same age as my brother. If you married him, you could be my sister-in-law. Lemme give you his number!” But it suddenly escalated from crude comments to deplorable gestures.
One day, as I was working with a student in the class, one of the junior boys had snuck behind me, and while standing just two feet away, he placed a rolled-up newspaper inside the front of his sweatpants and began to thrust back and forth. When I heard the other boys laughing in my direction, I turned around.
Before I could process the situation, the bell rang, and the boy darted out the door while laughing with his friends. At the end of the school day, I stopped by my supervisor’s office to inform her of the incident and to ask how to proceed with the discipline referral, but before I could speak, she said she had something to show me. She reached for an iPad on her desk—the same one that was used in my Journalism class—and scrolled through dozens of photographs zoomed in on my breasts and my behind.
I was mortified and speechless, but I was more speechless when, in a rather accusatory tone, she asked, “And what were you doing while these photos were taken? How could you not know that this was happening in your classroom?” She proceeded to scroll through the photos, as she remarked, “This is how the boys view their teacher. This is disgusting!”
I was in disbelief. I thought she would say that we needed to do something about this—that we needed to report these boys and have them suspended. I never thought she would admonish me.
After this, she lectured me on being more cognizant of my students by dressing in a way that wouldn’t elicit such behaviors from teenage boys whose “hormones are all over the place.” The irony is that in those photos, I was evidently wearing long black dress pants and an oversized sweater while in the middle of instruction at the front of the room.
I silently left her office and locked myself in my classroom where I cried for the next hour.
I didn’t even tell her about the earlier incident—I knew it would’ve only fueled her argument.
My appointed mentor saw me as she leaving, so she unlocked the classroom door and inquired about my disposition.
As she sat and listened to my tearful account, I erroneously believed that she was going to be supportive, so I was utterly shocked when she advised that I dress “less trendy” and look less attractive, or even ugly.
Since the school wasn’t doing anything about the boys’ behaviors, I knew I’d have to be the one to call the parents. So, I put myself in extreme discomfort and distress to make the call that would hopefully alleviate my daily torture.
One mother was completely supportive and even offered to drive her son to police station herself, but I told her it wasn’t necessary, as I didn’t want to jeopardize her son’s future. I lied. She also wanted her son suspended so he’d learn his lesson, but I said I had requested against it because I didn’t want anything reported on her son’s permanent records. Another lie.
It’s not that I was protecting the school. The truth is that I started to believe that I really was the one to blame. Perhaps if I had taught with my back to the wall; perhaps if I had a breast reduction; perhaps if I had been without makeup, then maybe none of this would’ve happened. These absurd and incoherent thoughts incessantly plagued me. I began to internalize my supervisor’s remarks and submit myself to culpability.
Because of the photo incident, my supervisor evaluated my attire (professional attire was to be rated on the annual teacher evaluation scale) as a one—the lowest possible rating a teacher could receive. Her reasoning was that my clothes were inappropriate to wear in a high school setting. I didn't understand how that could be possible since I was the only teacher who NEVER wore a skirt or dress and never wore sleeveless tops. In fact, on the day I had received that rating, I was wearing black pants and a long-sleeve cardigan despite the temperature being in the nineties.
I was subsequently dismissed from that job and those boys were never disciplined for their actions, though I could have pressed charges and had them tried as adults since they had both already turned eighteen at the time those photos were taken. But there was nothing I could do because as soon as my supervisor had shown me those photos, she permanently deleted them from ALL of the iPads to protect the school. Had the incident been leaked and had the police been involved, the case could’ve gained local publicity and notoriety.
When the institution protects the victim instead of the perpetrator, its reputation suffers. That was the case with Larry Nassar. That was the case with Bill Cosby. And that was the case with me. The women who were supposed to support and mentor me both failed me. And when women fail each other, they fail the entire gender.
This is why we continue to argue these cases in the courts. This is why men continue to harass women. And this is why more and more women are saying “me, too” instead of “not me.”
Though I wish this weren’t the case, all I can say is “me, too.”