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Culture

Fighting The System Of Harassment In Schools

Going into my profession as an educator, I knew that I was going to be an unruly, non-traditional teacher. At a very young age, being an educator was my dream, but my passion was never to teach academics; instead, I wanted to teach about the human experience through academics.

Early on, it seemed as if the curriculum I created for my classroom somehow paralleled my advocacy efforts and those efforts of society. At first, I taught against bullying in-between grammar lessons, choosing narratives where the protagonist was able to rise above and the antagonist learned a lesson. When one of my middle school students took her own life, my students and I spent more time on the floor in a circle talking about life and mental wellness.

After the 2016 presidential race, I knew I needed to move districts from a pretty liberal, desirable school district to a more ultra-conservative district that was still rebuilding itself from a tumultuous school board and administration. At my core I believed in the arts, I believed in the kindness of words and I felt as if I had the responsibility to foster those things, given my unique position of influence as an educator. Going into the new school district, I knew it would be difficult, but I was optimistic and eager to learn.

About six weeks into my new school, I became aware of an unwanted reality of sexual harassment/assault in middle school. The victims were both teachers and female students, and our all-male administration turned a blind eye. While some of it was juvenile, hormonal and trying to push the boundaries of being a teenager, other instances of harassment and assault left women and girls in the building feeling vulnerable and unsafe. In April, after a horrific assault—determined by state law—against one of my students, I was ready for the battle. By this time, the #MeToo and #TimesUp Movement had emboldened female and male allies alike to speak up. And even though I was a first-year teacher in the district, who was still on probationary status, not having the slightest clue of what to do, I began my battle with my administration and my school district.

It has been nine months since I began this battle. A new school year has commenced, and I am still in the same district, same classroom, and more stories are told within my classroom community. Recently, I realized my school was not having isolated events, but rather as a whole, our district was not giving due diligence to harassment claims. I have sought legal advice, began studying the law and have gone toe-to-toe with our HR department, also run by only men. The battle itself has been nothing short of exhausting, brutal and a game of dirty politics. On more than one occasion, I have endured intimidation and harassment by my administration. At the beginning of the year I was asked to keep quiet until another bigger situation came up. I have been invited to a table with our Human Resource officers, only to be screamed at and questioned as if I were on trial. While some of my colleagues have been supportive, the overwhelming majority question if I should be an advocate and a teacher at all. As a woman who has survived sexual assault and harassment previous to this job, just going through these talks have reiterated why women don’t come forward.

My curriculum has taken shape of my advocacy efforts just like before. Today, I am encouraging books where main characters fight a system and find their voice. In several of these talks, I have been reduced to tears and a muted voice, yet I want my students to know they can always come back tomorrow with a bolder voice.

Fortunately, a small legal team has formed around me. They remind me that this is a small piece of a larger problem we are facing in society. When the battle got hard, I was told no one would be upset if I laid down this fight, that there will always be someone else to fight it for us. And in that moment I knew I had a way out. I knew that I could walk away and focus on teaching for the rest of the year, making my job and life a lot easier. But the thought of tapping out made my stomach form knots, and in that moment, I knew I was put in this district for this very battle.

It has been said that schools are microsocieties and a reflection of our larger society in the United States. Throughout my research on income gaps and educational debt, race and discipline, and now with sexual assault and harassment, I would have to agree. And that can be a scary reality to get comfortable with—so we must not get comfortable with allowing our schools to be a reflection of our society when there is so much work we can do.

I am a 25 year old paying off student loans and cannot afford to lose my job. Although this is my second year in the school district, I am still on probationary status, and the truth is that I can lose my job in a moment’s notice, especially the louder and more stable my voice gets on these issues. Just a week before winter break, another sexual harassment incident happened at my school with no consequences for the alleged.

The only thing that feels scarier than losing my job is losing my voice on this issue. Girls deserve to go to school and get an education that is assault- and harassment-free. Even more, boys deserve to be raised to know boundaries as a compass to build and preserve their integrity.

 

Author: Cori McCallister
Email: corimccallister@gmail.com
Link to social media or website: Instagram @cordeliahart

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