Sexual Harassment Policies Aren't Enough
By Nisa Quarles '21
The Close has faced a challenging couple of years as we all try to reconcile both schools’ past with sexual misconduct and attempt to find ways to move toward a better future where we can have equal respect for one another. A lot of the conversation so far has surrounded much needed policy changes and ways in which we as entire institutions and as peers can better interact to create a safer, more inclusive environment for students. However, I am constantly reminded that policy changes and encouraging students to open up to staff members when they feel uncomfortable or violated are not enough if students continue to struggle with the fear that it is not “socially acceptable” or “valid” to voice their concerns to trusted adults in the community.
A few months ago, at a St. Albans Varsity Soccer game against Landon, I, my track teammates, and the NCS cross-country runners were completing our workouts on the St. Albans track. Although I usually enjoy when the spectators from the visiting team go back-and-forth with BEEF, it became highly frustrating when a large group of the visiting spectators instead began harassing the NCS runners on the track with subtle but painful remarks. Some of these remarks were virtually harmless such as coming up with a cheer against NCS and pointing out how “they thought STA was an all-boys school.” However, other remarks were more concerning such as audibly critiquing the running form and speed of some NCS cross-country runners as well as other comments that were more along the lines of sexual harassment such as “hey baby” and even targeting a girl by name about her dating history. As girls are often taught to do, we silently bit our tongues, ignored them, and even avoided their now claimed side of the track altogether. I realize that it would help readers better understand the gravity of this incident if I elaborated further, but I am hesitant to do so out of respect for the girls involved, and I also do not want their identities to take away from the actual content and purpose of the story.
As I was talking to my friends after the game, we expressed similar concerns about the situation. We recognized that although these comments were quiet and seemingly harmless, we felt targeted and uncomfortable on our own campus, especially because we felt outnumbered in a majority-male setting. For me, it was particularly upsetting to hear that we did not want to defend ourselves against these remarks because we were afraid of being labeled as “highly sensitive, typical NCS girls who can’t take a joke.” We felt that if we had addressed the boys directly, we may be labeled as “b*tchy,” and if we addressed our discomfort with a faculty member, we feared that the situation would be blown out of proportion. Wrongfully or rightfully so, we sadly did not believe our remarks would be seen as simply acknowledging and addressing behavior that is inappropriate towards members of our community. Rather, that they would be seen as fulfilling NCS’s nonexistent vendetta against all-boys schools and boys in general.
These conversations were not only disheartening, but they also reminded me that turning the other cheek to these types of targeted comments is a practice my friends and I know well. Whether it is other comments from visiting spectators at games during sports practices on the track, blatant sexualized criticism of girls’ appearances at track and cross-country meets, or even catcalling from male drivers near the Close, my friends and I are consistently charged with balancing when to ignore inappropriate behavior and when to use our voices to express our much-warranted discomfort. These small instances may seem minor when isolated, but they add up when you see the story of Ruth George, a nineteen-year-old college student who was murdered by a man who was angry with her for simply ignoring his catcalls.* She was whom I thought of when an older man in a white truck pulled up next to me to “ask me about my day” as I walked to meet a friend over winter break.
Unfortunately, as with the Landon boys, I often err on the side of placing the burden of the discomfort and anger on myself while the boys and men who exhibit such behavior face no repercussions and most likely do it again to other girls. I deny myself the opportunity to learn to deal with uncomfortable situations, and I deny them the opportunity to understand the impact of their actions and the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
I would like to end this article with a more encouraging tone, but I am not sure that there is a definitive solution to solving these types of problems or magically ridding girls’ lives of this type of harassment. However, I do believe that continuing the conversation about misconduct, even though it may seem repetitive to some, is vital. Being aware of the issue is the first step to cultivating a more empathetic Close culture and empowering every NCS and STA student to speak up for themselves.
Several months ago, the freshmen class of St. Albans completed its “Andy Thomas Week,” where freshmen learned about the dangers of drinking alcohol. No doubt, they were told that alcohol can produce terrible outcomes for high school students, among them suspension, recission, or expulsion. Even more alarming for the freshmen, they were probably told that alcohol is an addictive substance that has a detrimental effect on the growth of the brain. In no uncertain terms, they learned that they are putting their very lives at stake if, God forbid, they yearn to try beer at some point in high school.
While the first points are legitimate, the latter ones are nonsense. The dire warnings propagated by the school are pure hyperbole, meant to indoctrinate the freshmen into a “safer” and “morally pure” lifestyle. All the while, the people proclaiming the evils of alcohol are individuals who almost certainly drank in high school. Their idea that teens immediately put themselves in danger by drinking alcohol is asinine dogma, neither supported by history nor grounded in reality.
The notion that it makes one a better person to avoid drinking is also not worthy of any attention. There is nothing morally superior about one who refrains from consuming alcohol. They do not subscribe to any understanding of virtue that the rest do not. They are simply misguided, fearful of violating some unwritten and arcane doctrine that declares the consumption of alcohol a sin.
After all, it must be asked: if alcohol is so dangerous, then why does the United States stand alone in its severe punishment for underage drinkers? Almost every other nation, and most certainly every other Western nation, maintains a much more relaxed “drinking age.” Throughout Europe, for example, the arrest of a minor for consuming alcohol is a laughable prospect for metropolitan police departments. There, young people can often be found at bars or social clubs drinking in plain view. But they are not morally inferior to their transatlantic counterparts, as some may believe, nor do they have suffer long term brain damage. They simply differ in one key area of their daily lives: the vast majority of European teenagers do not drive.
The drinking age in the District of Columbia was eighteen at one point. While it is now the standard twenty-one–year limit, the fact that it was once the legal age of adulthood means that there was a time when teenage drinking was not treated with the same level of hysteria as it is today. It was once an open secret that St. Albans seniors drank beer in the former “Senior Room,” and little, if anything, was done to stop them. It was expected that teenagers could handle drinking with a degree of responsibility, as they did their other privileges. The drinking age was raised in the 1980’s, but mainly because of efforts by nonprofit organizations to reduce the rate of car collisions.
Driving while drunk is one of the most foolish and reckless things a teenager, or anyone, can do, but the recklessness of a few should not preclude the enjoyment of the many. The main issue that opponents took with the lower drinking age was the higher rate of car collisions, but even they did not include concerns about “brain damage” or “hormonal development” in their arguments.
To continue the collective punishment in existence today is an affront to America’s dedication to the “pursuit of happiness,” especially at a time when it is easier than ever to avoid driving while drunk. California, for example, has seen a sharp drop in DUI’s following the advent of Uber, Lyft, and other ridesharing apps. Seen in this light, strict penalties for underage alcohol consumption are a relic of the past, and should be changed to accommodate the technological improvements of the past decade.
Furthermore, the harsh measures imposed on underage drinkers are fundamentally un-American. Because of America’s commitment to freedom, a St. Albans senior can vote in an election, open a savings account, or purchase a gun with relative ease. When an American turns eighteen, they are assumed by the government to have attained a level of maturity that makes them deserving of these and other liberties. They are, after all, adults. It therefore makes no sense why, in the so-called “the land of the free,” underage alcohol consumption continues to be treated with the current punitive measures.
Still, this is not an endorsement of repealing the drinking age. If students were allowed to attend high school dances under the influence of alcohol it goes without saying that such occasions would gradually devolve into chaos, although St. Albans most likely caught a glimpse of that at its 2019 Homecoming dance. Some order must be maintained, and lowering the drinking age would bring about disorder in high schools across the country. What should be done with respect to underage drinking is something akin to the decriminalization measures applied to marijuana in several states. Nobody should face jail time for drinking, nor an excessive fine. If they do not consume alcohol before driving, there is no reason for their license to be suspended. If found off school grounds, they should not be subject to retribution by the people entrusted with their academic development. In other words, drinking should not be strictly enforced by the government nor vehemently denounced by schools.
The point is this: teens drink. They always have, and they always will. Contrary to many depictions of high school, the studious and the unruly alike enjoy the feeling of intoxication. At graduation, close to every single person on the Cathedral stage consumed alcohol at some point in high school, including the faculty. To treat drinking as something taboo does little to address the reality of the situation. While concerns about drunk driving and abusive behavior are justified, they are most definitely overblown. The drinking age in this country is twenty one because of car accidents, not teenage development.
The educational emphasis, therefore, should be placed on preparing students for this modern climate. Schools should teach them how to behave responsibly, not that drinking in high school puts them at risk of immediate death. Drinking, like any activity, can have negative effects if done in excess. But that is not how the vast majority of people drink, especially the young. Young people have consumed alcohol since the invention of the written word, literally. If drinking really did incur long-lasting damage on their minds, we would know by now.
An Undignified Future
By Robert Busching '20
On Wednesday night, the 22nd of January, a significant portion of the St. Albans and NCS senior class gathered in the Grace Chapel for a short program. Named Speak About It, this show hoped, “Using a combination of humorous yet provocative skits, interactive dialogue, and powerful monologues, [to empower] students by providing real-life examples and practical tools surrounding consent, sexual assault, and bystander intervention.”1 As the night wore on, though, I found that the skits were less provocative than crass, and more strange than powerful. Before I continue, though, I must affirm that the purpose of the program was and is a noble one, and my objections to the night’s entertainment aggress upon the presentation and setting, rather than the purpose and goals, of the night.
The program began with five young actors, dressed in unspectacular garments, taking the stage to the sound of The Lonely Island. The presentation started as a silly and awkward one, but the night went on. As the presentation continued eventually to a close, I found myself repeatedly surprised by the level to which the actors went in their descriptions and reenactments. The initial slap in the face occurred when, as part of a scripted monologue, one actress casually referred to “giving [her] boyfriend a handjob in the seventh grade.” I was wholly surprised by her openness about such a topic—not because of her words, but rather because of this situation in which she said them. She was speaking in this way from the pulpit the school had provided her. As the program continued, other such moments followed: Another actress discussed in excessive detail her sexual interactions; two of the performers ducked behind a black sight-barrier, then proceeded to remove some of their overgarments before moaning and employing language that gave an aural perception of sexual play. I do not believe their performance was outside of the realm of “acceptable” entertainment—almost all media now vomited upon us includes such humor and situations. The part of Speak About It that I found so completely shocking was the total irreverence for any sort of decency and, more than that, the fact that St. Albans all but compelled its seniors to attend this bawdy spectacle. If in class I were to make any quote of the aforementioned lines from the show, I would undoubtedly receive a swift reprimand. Therein I see a strong contradiction between the policy and action of the school. Ever since I applied to St. Albans, I have seen the school as a place that holds traditional dignity and values central to its mission and education. Perhaps that is why this program surprised me so much.
Another objection of mine, though more brief, stems from the venue of the show. Grace Chapel, I understand, is a far cry from the reverent rafters of the Little Sanctuary, which is almost exclusively dedicated to chapel services. I understand that the Grace Chapel is more of a gathering space than it is a parallel to the Little Sanctuary. Nevertheless, to profane the sacred house as on that night seems unbecoming.
Earlier this year, St. Albans sat for a fall Assembly with the slam poet Taylor Mali. His stories and poetry were at times quite crass and at some points even came across as directly offensive. A certain story describing the phallic fascinations of juvenile boys when discussing Roman history, and another requiring that Mali shout “bitch” as a major punchline both approached the unacceptable. As a result of substantial pushback from faculty and from certain students, Headmaster Robison formally addressed the issue with a direct speech to the students and a subsequent reflection documented in The Saint Albans News. In both of these, he emphasized a need for intellectual maturity that was either absent in Mali’s works, or buried so deep as to preclude intellectual growth in his audience.
This is what I fail to understand: if the school must apologize formally for the words of a visitor who took a rude and coarse turn with his poetry, then can we all turn a blind eye to such irreverence for traditional respect and dignity in Speak About It, simply because it advocates such an important cause?
One of the best parts of St. Albans is our traditions. We eat lunch together, go to chapel together; we go to our classes together and we step out on the turf together. Underlying all of our traditions, though, is our reverence, our dignity, the honor we have for tradition and decency. We may not all maintain this decency round the clock, but it at the very least is the foundation for our education, and a large part of what makes St. Albans special. The students are expected to act a certain way, and the faculty holds them to it equally. When the school endorses an event like Speak About It, a small part of our decency dies. Perhaps it is a price we are willing to pay for the valuable information Speak About It provided about consent and sexual assault prevention. But when we no longer care about the traditional respect and dignity that has been such an integral part of our school, a crack appears in the pillar that holds our school up above today’s profane culture.