By Ben Mack, Lizzie Marvelly and Jo Raj
Sarah* works at a co-ed high school in the North Island. Because she is a woman, she says there are times she has not been treated with the same level of respect at her job as male colleagues.
“I’ve had students over the years who have clearly treated me with disrespect, and it’s hard to really prove, but I think as a woman you know that they just don’t really respect women,” she says.
“I’ve had male teachers tell me that a particular boy doesn’t respect female teachers, and it was used to justify his bad behaviour. Like it was quite reasonable: ‘oh don’t take it personally, he doesn’t respect any of your gender.’”
There are also times she has felt unsafe at school.
“I had a student once whom I didn’t even teach but he for some reason must have decided that he didn’t like me,” she explains.
“He’d come to my classroom door to wait for his friends and make sort of smart comments or do hand gestures behind my back. It was pretty underhand and difficult to do anything about. But it makes you feel pretty uncomfortable and also targeted. It also makes you wonder what on earth has made this boy go so out of his way to be horrible to a teacher he doesn’t even know.”
Jane*, another North Island teacher, says she has also experienced and witnessed concerning behaviour at her co-ed school.
“There was an issue I dealt with where a boy was taking photos of a girl and posting them on his social media accounts without her permission,” she explains. “This was making her feel really uncomfortable.”
Michelle*, who also teaches at a co-ed North Island school, says she too has experienced harassment and rape culture.
“I’ve definitely seen and heard things that range from making me roll my eyes, to making my blood boil,” she says, adding that it includes, “Slut-shaming comments made in passing, photographs taken without permission and shared online, overly aggressive physical contact, and then there are the shocking things we don’t see but hear about afterwards, that have happened at parties.”
Sarah, Jane and Michelle’s stories paint a picture of a pervasive rape culture at schools in New Zealand. Michelle believes the problem is nationwide.
“I’d say because rape culture is so widespread within the wider online and offline communities the students exist in, that almost every student would be affected in some way.”
Sarah says that while her school has severe consequences for students who engage in threatening behaviour towards women, it remains a problem.
“Students have been suspended. I also think our school tries to do quite a bit about educating our students on these matters. They get lots of talks and experts telling them how to behave online, that’s why it is so surprising when they then go online and target people. It’s not like they are unaware of the consequences.”
Michelle says the problem exists to the point where she is concerned for the general wellbeing of female students at her school. “They’re concerned about the way the boys treat them in general as well as specific incidents.”
Jane goes a step further. “I am continually amazed by the idiocy of some students. I would like to think that all our students knew that that sort of thing was not OK.”
Coming to a head
The issue of harassment in schools has become a major headline in New Zealand recently. On March 13, hundreds of students gathered in front of Parliament to protest against rape culture. The rally came about after male students at Wellington College were caught making boastful comments about sexual assault in a private Facebook group. Around the same time, a group of Year 9 students at St Patrick’s College in Silverstream were stood down for taking inappropriate images of female staff members without their consent.
Despite the pressure to put an end to rape culture in schools, the pushback has at times threatened the safety of members of school communities. The protest against rape culture that students from Wellington East Girls’ College organised was originally planned to take place on March 10. The rally was relocated and rescheduled after male students threatened to “run over” protesters.
The issue is clearly also a thorny one at some schools. While the teachers in this story agreed to speak to Villainesse, several administrators, teachers and board members at schools across both the North and South Islands declined to be interviewed. Some senior school leaders vetoed their teachers’ involvement in this story. Others did not respond to requests for comment.
‘They all have mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, teachers’
Courtney*, a North Island teacher-in-training, says a large part of the problem could be attributed to the influence of online misogyny and inadequate consent training in schools.
“We have a tendency to forget as adults that we have the ability to be discerning and critical of the world around us… It’s simple to make up our own minds about these issues, but imagine how confusing it is for adolescents whose only exposure to the rhetoric surrounding sexuality is through really dangerous ones spread by bad media and the accessibility of the internet, aided only by a few awkward sex ed lessons and an embarrassing conversation with parents,” she says.
“This isn’t a way to excuse what we’ve seen and heard over the past few weeks. It’s more of a framework to understand how rape culture exists and continues to grow.”
Michelle has similar concerns.
“As teachers it’s our duty to remain calm and deal with each incident in a way that protects the mana of all involved while also hoping to teach and improve relationships and understanding of appropriate behavior,” she says.
“So much of teaching adolescents is about guiding them through really rough waters. And often behaviour is learnt outside of school, from older friends, or has been seen at home. I definitely think it’s a whole societal issue and we all have to work together – parents and schools and media and Government.”
Sarah thinks that part of the problem is the kind of material that students – particularly boys – are being exposed to online.
“They all have mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, teachers,” she says. “They must have grown up surrounded by these loving, nurturing female role models. So where on earth do these attitudes come from? I think it must be the ready access to online porn and these places online where men go to spew horrible ideas about women. If they are not having much success in terms of attracting girls, that resentment could then turn to discrimination. Unfortunately, I think they must get some of these derogatory views towards women from their male role models.”
Jane agrees. “I blame Reddit and 4Chan. I think even these boys know it's not ok though.”
She also says that other media can also play a negative role.
“There was an instance a few years back when I was showing Blade Runner to a class,” she recalls.
“The sex scene in it is… pretty rapey. I picked up an uncomfortable vibe in the room, and we stopped and discussed what had happened, and the idea of consent.”
Jane also points out that not all teachers will react in the same way. “Anything we come across we are down on [immediately], but that's not to say that we know everything that's going on. It's also not to say that every staff member will respond the way that I might,” she says.
“Adults don't always know what teens are up to, and they're pretty good at putting a good face on things when they want to.”
Gendered attitudes are another problem Sarah says she has encountered, particularly the emphasis placed on male sports, which she says has a trickle-down effect on how women and girls are treated.
“Male sports are always far more important than anything else. The First XV is the top sports team in the school, I would say this would be the same in every boys' and co-ed school in the country with a few exceptions,” she says.
“This isn't to say that they are derogatory about girls' sports or other activities, but if you place so much importance on the rugby and the First XI Football these attitudes filter down into the school.”
Michelle worries about the impact that gendered attitudes have on her female students. “I feel like it’s an uphill battle to fight against the discrimination that is so ingrained. It’s hardest to see some of the girls accept the attitudes or, worse, to naively believe they’re immune to discrimination,” she says.
“The most damaging thing I’m conscious of is the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude which is so frustratingly permissive.”
‘There is no problem here’
While most of the teachers Villainesse spoke to shared stories of discrimination and harassment, Mark*, a teacher at a co-ed North Island school, said he did not believe rape culture was a problem at his school.
“I have seen nothing at my school to indicate there is any such problem,” he said.
“The vast majority of these young people have excellent values and mix very well with the opposite gender. They are respectful towards each other.”
He said he also does not believe rape culture in schools exists as it is portrayed in the media.
“This rape culture talk, I feel, is a media beat-up,” he said.
“It is blown out of all proportion. I have seen no evidence whatsoever that the children today are any different to the mid-1980s. The only difference is what is in their pockets – their mobile devices. We did not live in a world of social media but the children today do. That’s the main difference.”
He also disagreed with how the events at Wellington College had been portrayed.
“The situation from the Wellington school… well, I wasn’t there. But I would be very surprised if that school has a rape culture. I say it doesn’t. One or two tweets or Facebook posts have been picked up and played out in the media. The boys making these posts are still finding their way in life – [they] are probably young and ‘stupid.’
“The comments, I feel, are simply bravado. If you spoke to these boys one-on-one, you would probably find they are decent people. Just immature. Talking on Facebook because it is ‘cool.’ To impress their mates. We may have done the same - we just did not have the platforms to do it on. I strongly disagree a rape culture exists. If I thought it did I would say so.”
Calls for mandatory consent courses
With young people growing up in an increasingly challenging environment, Courtney believes that we “can’t expect that adolescents will inherently know that something is wrong when they are faced with so many conflicting representations of sexuality.”
Sarah said one way to help combat the problem would be to make consent training compulsory in every school in New Zealand.
“I think it should be part of sex education in health, which it is at our school and many others. But I also think parents need to have these sorts of conversations with their children.”
Jane also supports the idea of compulsory consent training. “But I also think we have to recognise that it’s not just schools – it’s the whole community. I actually think conversations like those around Wellington College are hugely influential in making the wider community aware of what is not ok.”
“It blows my mind that we dedicate so little time to educating our youths about healthy sexuality, yet are surprised when we see them perpetuating rape culture. It seems like an insurmountable task, breaking through such deeply ingrained ideology.”
Currently, consent training is not compulsory in New Zealand schools.
The Ministry of Education defends not making consent courses mandatory
When contacted by Villainesse, the Ministry of Education’s Deputy Secretary (Acting) of Early Learning and Achievement, Karl Le Quesne, defended the Ministry’s decision not to make consent training compulsory in New Zealand schools, saying such a decision was up to individual schools.
He said the following:
“Our job is to provide the framework and the guidelines. It’s up to schools how they teach it and what they teach.
“The only compulsion on schools is to teach the curriculum, and sexuality education forms part of that under the health and physical education part of the curriculum.
“Many secondary schools teach consent as part of their sexuality education programme. It could be timely, for those secondary schools who do not include consent in their health curriculum, to discuss this issue with their school community.
“We recognise understanding what consent means is an important one in the education of young people. That’s why in 2015 we updated our advice to schools on the importance of teaching about consent, coercion and sexual violence which was developed in conjunction with a number of experts in this area.
“Schools are required to consult with their school community at least once every two years on their health curriculum, which includes sexuality education. This allows for a range of views to be heard and for the community to be involved in what they consider are important issues for their young people to learn about.
“We know many secondary schools and communities include consent in their sexuality education. Many schools also hold forums outside scheduled classes where important issues such as consent, coercion and safety in intimate relationships can be debated and discussed.
“We do not want to impinge on what parents say to their children at home. However it is fair to say that this topic needs to be tackled at home as well as in the classroom.
“There’s no doubt that issues like rape culture and online sexual harassment have come to light through the well documented events at Wellington College.
“We will continue to offer our help to schools who need assistance working through these issues.”
‘This isn’t an issue we can afford to ignore’
When contacted by Villainesse for her reaction to the Ministry’s comments, Courtney had this to say:
“Consent is an issue that affects everyone. Whatever a caregiver’s stance about how they choose to educate their child about sexuality, the consequences of not talking about consent are far too far-reaching and destructive to ignore.
“Real people are being hurt by the lack of conversation about healthy sexuality and consent. The damage done is the kind of horror that keeps parents up at night. This isn’t an issue we can afford to ignore – it’s about doing our best as a society and community to protect our youths.
“To do this, we need backing from the Government. Not taking a strong stance on the issue of consent in secondary schools is not only doing an incredible disservice to the youths of this nation but all the people of Aotearoa.”
‘I do believe we can make a difference’
Like Sarah, Courtney and Jane, Michelle believes that consent should be mandatory in every school in New Zealand if rape culture is to be combatted. She also knows that schools can’t fix everything.
“Relationship education is so important. Some schools do this brilliantly within their health programmes, whereas some schools do the bare minimum and let their students down. We have worked alongside respected agencies to give our students the big picture. But it can’t just be a one-off programme once a year, it needs to be ingrained – we need to be having conversations with students all the time and we need to be open to listening to what is going on for them.
“We can’t expect to ‘fix’ everything that happens in society and we are pushing against the weight of historical attitudes and beliefs about gender and about education. Often people are quick to say ‘schools should fix that.’ But it needs to be a partnership between parents, schools and absolutely everyone else in society that wants to see a positive change.
“If we all do the best we can, every day, with our own children, with the children we teach and in our own lives, to fight against rape culture and to speak up when we see or hear something that is wrong, and to be positive feminist role models, then I do believe we can make a difference.”
*NOTE: With the exception of Karl Le Quesne from the Ministry of Education, the names of the people in this story have been changed to protect their identities. We have also chosen not to identify the individual schools they work at to further protect them from potential retaliation.
This is not a decision we have made lightly. We have done so after deciding that the importance of the issue at hand, and the personal risk to the individuals involved outweighs any reason to publish individual teachers’ identities. Our motivation in publishing this story is simply a hope that it may spark further conversation about consent, sexual harassment and rape culture in New Zealand schools.
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