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Teachable Moments in OK: The Importance Of Awareness

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Some of you might remember I made a formal open records request to view internal records of how the Norman School District handled rape and bullying allegations that recently spawned a large demonstration supported by the organization YES ALL Daughters.

To its credit, the district responded promptly to my request, and after a longer conversation with the district's attorney in an effort to weed out superfluous material, I was given 141 pages of various emails and other documents related to the issue. It has taken me some time to go through all the documents and then decide how I might approach the matter.

Let me say upfront that I don't believe the documents provided to me show any crucial errors by the Norman School District or its supporters on this issue. There are instances of tone among the documents that seem a little overly defensive to me, but that's arguably understandable given the circumstances. I will discuss this defensiveness later in this post.
My main reason for writing this post is this: While Norman students and parents responded in force to the allegations and while the district eventually responded capably and openly to the ensuing protest, I wonder how many school districts there are in Oklahoma and across the country in which this wouldn't have been the case. Norman is a university town next to a major metropolitan city. The issue received widespread media coverage inside and outside the state from mainstream media outlets and a major feminist web site. What about smaller towns in Oklahoma? Bullying, for example, is a major issue in our culture, and it's probably no more prevalent than in our schools today.

Let me revisit some specific information about the issue. In the most general sense, rape and bullying allegations involving Norman High School students were reported to school authorities. One student, 18-year-old Tristen Killman-Hardin, was initially suspended from school and then eventually charged with two counts of first-degree rape of a 16-year-old student off campus on Sept. 19. A video of the alleged rape was apparently circulated among some students, according to a news report.

As the Cleveland Country District Attorney's office investigated the case, more sexual abuse allegations from two other young women against Killman-Hardin surfaced, and at least one of all the alleged victims reported she was bullied at school in relation to the events. Eventually, a feminist-leaning knitting group in Norman got involved in the issue, contacted the national web site Jezebel with information about the cases involving the young women and helped formed the organization YES ALL Daughters. This was the organization that helped put together the student walkout and protest against rape and bullying on Nov. 24. Killman-Hardin was charged about a week later. Norman School District officials also announced the participants in a task force to study gender-based violence and bullying.

Case closed, right? Organized protest works! Well, not so fast.

Public school officials have the difficult task of mediating all sorts of complications among their students. When it rises to the criminal level, they are duty bound to report the information to police and cooperate in any official investigation, which was done in this case. Obviously, school officials can't monitor student behavior outside of school settings, but what they can do is create an environment in which all students feel safe.

The question is whether the Norman School District or other school districts are doing enough to create safe and comfortable environments for students in these times of school shootings, cyber bullying, drug use and continued sexual violence against women in our culture, one of the historic tragedies of violent behavior. School should ALWAYS be a safe haven. No exceptions.

Before I try to answer the question, let me highlight a few of the items in the documents I received that indicated that some school district officials and one outside official might have been overly defensive about the criticism the district received over how it handled the rape and bullying allegations.

 

  • In a Nov. 10, 2014 email to Norman School Superintendent Joe Siano, Holly Nevels, who is listed on the district's site as Director of Secondary Education, refers to one of the victim's mothers in this way:

    "Scott also feels the victim's mom could now be caught up in the Facebook family/Jerry Springer aspect of this as well (just between us, of course). That certainly could be true, which is why he wants to speak to her again. He also thinks it is becoming about a cause for a certain group -- not really about best interest of the girl. Of course."

    We can assume that Nevels is referring to Scott Beck, who is the principal of Norman High School. Demonizing bullying victims and those that support them is a classic reason of why it persists. It goes something like this: Oh, she/he is just crazy. He/she just needs to settle down. She/he has ulterior motives.

 

  • Along these same lines, Chad Vice, a member of the Norman School Board, wrote this about the issue in a Nov. 22 email to Siano:

    "I believe the social media posts still represents an extremely small percentage of the whole. It's most unfortunate that many of the people that are pleased with the district don't speak up but you and I both know that's not the way it works. Talk is cheap when the story is good.
"

    And then this:

    "I think we should be careful not to breathe any more life into this than has already been done. "

    And this:

    "I'm concerned that the only ones talking are the only ones being heard.
"

    And this:

    "Surely we have options to be more informative and shut this down."

    What does Vice want to "shut down"? I want to hope it's rape and bullying, but I will speculate he means in this context the media coverage, or the growing protest at the time, or even an intense public discussion about sexual violence and bullying in the Norman School District. Vice may have wanted the district to "be careful not to breathe any more life into this than has already been done," but it's crucial there's public awareness about sexual violence against women and bullying. We need more exposure on these issues, not less.

 

  • Even Cleveland County Commissioner Rod Cleveland responded in a somewhat similar fashion in a Nov. 26 email to Cindy Nashert, another member of the Norman School Board:

    "It seems like one of the parents of the victims feels like the punishment is not happening quickly enough so they have taken it out on the school district and taken it public."

    Again, I believe the focus here, though fairly innocuous, is too much on the behavior of the victims' supporters and the media coverage. I'm assuming Cleveland means the parent complained and tried to get something done about the issue. There's nothing inherently wrong with a parent complaining nor is there anything wrong if a parent takes an issue public. After all, the Norman School District is supported through public tax dollars and the public has the right to know what's going on.

 

  • This has already been widely reported, but the day before the Nov. 24 protest Siano sent out a letter to parents of Norman High School students that claimed "there is information of which parents and guardians should be aware."

    Siano went on to write, "We do not know who will be in charge of tomorrow's event. While we first believed this would be a student-led and organized demonstration, we are far less certain of that now. As of the writing of this letter, close to 1,000 people have RSVP'd on social media they will be attending. And, what was first communicated on social media as a demonstration that would be less than an hour in length has now evolved into an event that will occupy the front of Norman High until at least 4:20 p.m."

    Note the very slight hint of paranoia here. I don't want to exaggerate it. Siano might have felt some legal responsibility to send this out. Of course, we now know for sure the protest was a huge non-violent success that was well attended by local students and widely covered by the media, which translates into more awareness about sexual violence against women and bullying. I believe the walkout and protest ended up becoming a really GOOD thing for the district, the Norman community and state.

I'm not even remotely suggesting that Norman School District officials and their supporters tried to sweep any serious allegations under the rug or engage collectively in some secret effort to stop protestors. By far, the records I viewed, when appropriate, expressed in some form or another, overall sympathy and compassion. As I mentioned earlier, none of the documents revealed any crucial errors or organized secrecy. In fact, the documents lead me to fully retract my earlier call for Siano and Beck to step aside as the allegations were investigated.

But it's the culture that breeds sexual violence and bullying, and school officials, especially in a major university town near a large city, should be on the forefront of enlightenment when it comes to these two issues. The normal institutional reaction of wanting to contain and manage a festering issue in the media should never trump the idea that sometimes conflict becomes a teachable moment, that sometimes it's best to embrace rather than to take cover, to accept, to improve and to grow. Students need to learn this through unequivocal modeling. Norman school officials could have done better with this issue as it emerged, but we can say that about most institutions, or even ourselves, in any given circumstance.

But let me be clear about this: The Norman School District should absolutely use these recent incidents to become without question the leading role model for other Oklahoma school districts in dealing with sexual violence and bullying. Superintendent Siano should make this happen.

So to answer the question I posed earlier about schools as safe havens, I think that school officials, collectively, and this includes college campuses, should do more to ensure the safety of their students. I hope this Norman case pushes every school administrator in Oklahoma to support or consider bolstering policies relating to sexual violence and bullying at our schools.

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