The Kavanaugh Effect on Elite Private Schools: A Time for Action

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Surely, given the plethora of testimony about private schools in the DC area attended years ago by both now Justice Kavanaugh and the victim Dr. Blasey Ford, it is worth reflecting on how the recently completed Supreme Court confirmation hearings are affecting these institutions — their students (current and prospective), faculty, staff, coaches, parents and alums.

And, perhaps of even great import, how can we improve the lives of students currently attending (or soon to attend) these institutions in light of the issues/themes raised in the testimony and in the media: sexual assault; partying; drinking; social clubs; summer experiences, civility, respect, trust, truth and, last but not least, memory.

Let me focus in this piece on just one key aspect of this entire scenario: culture and its impact. The idea that there is a culture of misogyny at certain private institutions is not an issue of the past. Indeed, despite whatever culture existed when Justice Kavanaugh was a student at Georgetown Prep, there are current reports of offensive acts by male students today against female students.

Consider Owen Labrie and the tradition at St. Pauls School of the expectation (challenge) that high school seniors have sex with younger students and then note the “conquest” with, apparently, a tick on a wall behind washing machines. (He is now seeking a re-trial.) St. Pauls School is not alone in its struggle to change its current, not just past, culture. Many elite private institutions have uncovered a history of sexual misconduct, often by faculty against students, and this has resulted in overt efforts to change current culture to be keenly aware of what is and is not acceptable behavior between students and faculty and among students. For an example, look at the recent and remarkable efforts of the Emma Willard School.

Here’s what worries me. Before the Kavanaugh “spectacle,” there seemed, at least to me, to be a growing recognition that past behavior related to partying, drinking and sex was improving in the sense that the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior were becoming clearer. Female students garnered more voice and male students saw that there were consequences to their behaviors. Female and male students at least have a heightened awareness that one can do more than say no and being drunk does not excuse male behavior nor create female permission. Stated simply, culture at elite schools appeared to be changing.

But, the treatment of these issues during the Kavanaugh hearings was and remains troubling. A victim’s voice was heard but not believed by many. The nominee to the Supreme Court proclaimed an affinity for beer in his youth (and today), and he bolstered a boys-will-be-boys attitude regarding both his behavior and his entries in the Georgetown Prep yearbook. He carved out bizarre definitions of terms from that yearbook that surely were sexual when written, and he wrote off his behavior as youthful indiscretion and over-indulgence. But, said he, he never crossed some invisible line and never molested or sexually assaulted anyone.

Here’s the catch: Judge Kavanaugh became Justice Kavanaugh and there appears to be no real price he paid or will pay for his behavior. Sure, we can be cryptic and suggest things like: be careful with whom you party when young as they may have memories that differ from yours years later. Yet, some of Justice Kavanaugh’s friends from his prep school appeared to have little to no memory of their past conduct. Other high school and Yale college “friends” either did not come forward or were not given weight and attention.

In essence, the boy’s club mentality persisted and those with knowledge were written off as having an agenda or having an addiction — thereby discrediting their viewpoints.

The messaging to young people — the culture that we accept — can’t be that because you are young, whatever you do then — in your youth — is excused. Goodness. We can’t create a generation that says “party hardy” while young because my friends will protect my misdeeds decades from now when memory can claim to be lacking. And I am not just referencing possible sexual assault.

And, ask these questions: What are the tests for bad behavior? Does not blacking out mean one was not too too drunk? Does denial hold water, especially when friends cannot even remember an event? Does disclosure ruin one’s chances for a position of high stature down the road? For example, can one become a pediatrician if one groped a young girl while drunk or showed her your genitals? Can one become a teacher if one has fondled a friend in the dark in a game of Spin the Bottle or its modern equivalents?

Whatever one’s political views, we now have a return to hard questions about youthful behavior and where we draw the lines and how we sanction what is and is not acceptable. It strikes me as near to impossible to argue that underage drinking, whether or not to excess, is totally taboo when Justice Kavanaugh all but sanctioned the permissibility of this behavior.

Are we teaching our young people that denial is a very very good defense? Are we experiencing a time when the message is: Just keep saying “it” didn’t happen (whatever the it is) and say that loudly and with anger and venom. And be sure to attack the victim and the questioners. Cry too if possible.

Changing and improving institutional culture is not easy. It is even harder when the media and public officials (especially behaviors of those in positions of power) are sanctioning — — explicitly or inferentially — youthful indiscretion and/or offensive, misogynistic terminology whether written or spoken.

There are no simple answer but let me offer three suggestions to try to insure that we develop a culture of respect, civility and decency for our students at all schools. We have an opportunity, a sad one to be sure, to message well — a true teachable moment we should not lose, tempers flaring or not.

First, adults need to role model all the time — day and night, in school and out of school. Our children are watching. And since some adults are behaving badly, there is all the more reason for other adults to act thoughtfully and carefully and wisely. No DUI’s for teachers, coaches and headmasters. No sleeping with or dating students or parents for teachers, coaches and headmasters. We message by our deeds, not just our words. And, we need to share that there should be sanctions when adults act badly. No more “Do as I say not as I do.”

Second, we need to offer opportunities for students to talk — to each other and to adults all the time — — in classrooms, in dining halls, in athletics, in faculty offices. Adults need to listen and listen well and reflect and ponder. Discussions of line drawing and limits are not only appropriate; they are sorely needed. Finding ways to facilitate civil discussion — and open discussion — are needed. Is that small dinners? Small groups? After athletic event get-togethers? Evenings in residential halls? Following movies or readings? There is no single location or single opportunity; we have to seek out and use the many occasions that exist for thoughtful, humane engagement and truth telling.

Third, reflect on our existing disciplinary systems and how “wrongdoing” is handled on elite campuses. How are we “punishing” those who cross lines? How are we treating victims, past and present? How are we using bad acts to become teachable opportunities for all students? Are all students treated similarly or do certain factors play a role in outcomes (i.e. Are the parents are wealthy donors or alums so offending student is a legacy and treated differently)? There are few secrets on campuses and so when bad acts happen and punishments meted out, these are moments for overt efforts to discuss issues and offer guidance, while preserving appropriate respect for process and confidentiality.

My final thought: we need to worry. For real. At least if we are worrying, we are pondering the issues and that worry tunes us into seeing and hearing more. When we worry, we are more vigilant and that vigilance is sorely needed as we seek to instill a culture of which we can all be proud and in which we can comfortably and respectfully exist — now and into the future.

Note: A special thanks to MW, who shared his perspective on these issues with me and listened thoughtfully and carefully as I shared my thinking. His insights enriched this piece immeasurably.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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