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Toronto police respond to an incident at St. Michael’s College School, in Toronto on November 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Responding to sexual violence in schools: What can educators learn?

As news about alleged gang sexual assault at St. Michael’s College in Toronto dominated headlines in Canada and even globally in the past two weeks, some parents and educators posed a familiar question: What can educators do to prevent sexual violence among youth?

Global news reported police are now investigating two alleged sexual assaults at the Toronto school, and three other possible assaults including one with a belt. In the face of these horrific allegations, can education offer some solutions?

The question, however urgent, is naïve because it assumes that schools are safe. More education is not simply the solution. Schools are also part of the problem.

Research shows that schools are, in fact, often unsafe places for girls, LGBTQ youth, youth of colour, disabled youth and young people who, for whatever reason, fall outside narrow definitions of what it means to be a young man or woman.

That is a lot of people who cannot count on schools to be inclusive, welcoming places.

No magic bullet

As I argue in my book Sexuality in School: The Limits of Education, the wish that a single solution could magically erase gender-based violence in schools is unrealistic. The wish for a magic bullet solution masks the complexity of these issues, both for youth and adults.

Our response to reports of sexual violence in schools, as educators and education researchers, is to search for answers in programs, policies and curriculum. We hope such action could educate young people out of hatred and ignorance and into tolerance and knowledge.

Researchers advocate new anti-bullying policies, the formation of gay-straight alliances or the development of a more comprehensive sex education curriculum.

CBC reported that the now-former principal of St. Michael’s College, Greg Reeves, told a meeting of alumni that the school would establish a gay-straight alliance club.

Certainly, all these efforts matter even as no one action can fix the problem once and for all. Our efforts to support students and transform schools will require a patient and holistic approach. To make schools more welcoming places for all students, I suggest three responses to the question of what education can do to prevent sexual violence.

New stories of masculinity

High schools are laboratories for masculinity and femininity. We know that the scripts describing what it means to become a man and what it means to become a woman are especially rigid during adolescence.

Education specifically about sexual assault or gender-based violence is not enough. Boys need access to a range of stories about masculinity while growing up. Brunel Johnson/Unsplash, CC BY

Boys have been taught to hold each other to an impossible standard of masculinity that is tied to race, class and ability. Girls, too, feel enormous pressure to take on traditional ideas of femininity as they learn to navigate an increasingly fraught culture of heterosexuality.

For young people who feel constrained by these claustrophobic ideas of masculinity and femininity, schools can play an important role in offering young people alternative narratives of becoming men and women.

Former private school teacher and education researcher Adam Howard spent six years examining privilege and masculinity in an elite school environment. In his book Learning Privilege: Lessons of Power and Identity in Affluent Schooling, he discusses the corrosive effects of toxic masculinity especially for boys who do not participate in competitive sports or other prized traditions.

Not narrow for anyone

All boys need access to a range of stories about growing up. As interdisciplinary scholar Lance T. McCready argues, boys need a multitude of stories to refute the violence and aggression of masculinity but still explore the importance of belonging, vulnerability, friendship and desire.

Throughout the school day, across the curriculum, students should encounter a range of representations of masculinity and femininity. In different classrooms, from English, biology, art and health education, the curriculum should be stacked with diverse stories of what it means to come of age as a young man or woman today.

Expanding definitions of masculinity and femininity not only help young heterosexual students resist narrow conceptions of being and becoming men and women; the expansiveness also makes more room in schools for LGBTQ+ students.

Revellers cheer from the sidewalk as they watch the Toronto Pride parade on Sunday, June 24, 2018 in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

Schools have a responsibility to not only protect LGBTQ+ students from discrimination and violence but also to create learning environments that welcome sexuality and gender into the everyday life of the school. Part of creating this learning environment involves including affirmative representations of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and gender non-binary people, communities and issues in the curriculum.

Stop teaching, start listening

Finally, as educators and researchers, we need to rethink our confidence that, as adults, our responsibility is to teach and young people’s task is to learn. Rather than only pose the question, What can we do?, We might also ask: What can we learn?

Researchers routinely advocate for incorporating young people’s perspectives in school policy and design. However, that commitment can be easily shed when schools are faced with crises like the alleged incidents at St. Michael’s. The time it would take to listen to young people is often trumped by the demand to respond immediately. The patient work of understanding takes too long.

But, as my research on sex education and LGBTQ youth indicates, young people’s experiences of sexuality and gender in high school are far more complex than anti-bullying programs or sex education curriculum can allow.

Even as young people strive to understand themselves as sexual and gendered beings, they also redefine the terrain and terms of sexuality and gender. If we pause and listen to youth, we may hear new stories of masculinity and femininity echoing through the school hallways.

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