Response to UVA

What the college sexual assault phenomenon means to independent schools

When an out-of-the-blue parent call starts with “Headmaster, you have a serious problem,” your focus goes way up while your stomach goes pretty far down. When I received such a call one spring in the late 1990’s, I got up, closed my office door, and said, “You have my attention.” The caller—the father of a younger girl at Blair—told me that he had reason to believe that a senior boy, in fact a post-graduate senior (meaning the boy would be at least 18-years-old) had had sexual relations with a freshman girl. It was, he allowed, consensual and oral—which is in fact “sexual relations” in legal terms—but nonetheless of significant concern to him both for the students involved and the school generally. Having learned about the incident through social media of some sort (and I suspected but never discovered if he was talking about his own daughter), the father then asked, “What would you do if I told you the boy’s name?” Without hesitation I replied, “Call the school lawyer, who I suspect would then call the district attorney.” There was a long pause, before he said, “I ask that you think about a way to use this incident in an educational way, and then get back to me. Then I shall let you know whether or not I want tell you more.”

Thus was initiated an annual event, usually the first week of school, of all junior and senior students—no absences allowed—meeting with a local judge, an alumnus, who carefully and thoroughly explained the state laws regarding sexual relations between adolescents, how those laws were applied, and the consequences of breaking them. While the meeting started by addressing the issue of age, it became a message about consensual relations and ultimately about sexual abuse. The first meeting of these presentations took place in the spring of the year I received the call. However, the reaction by the students, one of sober and thoughtful appreciation that we had been so straightforward about an issue that had previously never been discussed, secured the meeting as an annual event.

Beginning in the 1970’s with the rise of co-education, independent schools—particularly secondary schools—have become focused on and generally more thoughtful and proactive about adolescent sexual relationships That said, over the past two decades, many of us began to hear with disturbing regularity about a few of our recent graduates who, early in their college years, encountered situations of sexual abuse, misconduct, and even rape. Some of these alumni were victims; some were accused of misconduct; and some incidents occurred to a friend or roommate. In each case, these young women and men had their lives invariably and sometimes tragically disrupted, with the sexual assault incident and issue invariably and always part of their college careers.

Just this week, The New York Times had a front page story and an op-ed on collegiate sexual assault issues, which highlighted the problem of understanding the nature and extent of the challenges. Clearly, colleges are struggling to manage the frequent “she said-he said” conundrum, a dynamic that seems to harm everyone involved—including the community at large. The fact that the federal government has put on notice over a hundred American universities and colleges with regard to their handling—or lack thereof—of sexual abuse incidents does underscore the national concern about sexual assault. And the recent confusing and inflammatory reports of a sexual assault incident at the University of Virginia was heightened in drama by the claim made public that one in five young women experience sexual abuse during their Charlottesville years. Inflated or not—and hard to prove regardless—such an assertion underscores the perception of contemporary campus life as a minefield of difficult, even threatening, social situations. If nothing else, the UVA problem should be a signal to all secondary schools that we need to remain vigilant about relationships among our students and raise the bar for ourselves on preparing our boys and girls for the confusing, tempting, and threatening situations that college social life apparently presents.

What should schools be doing? Here are four straightforward and pragmatic approaches:

  • Do, early in the year, bring in an outside speaker—like our state judge at Blair—to lay out the legal realities of sexual conduct. This presentation is a reality check going into the senior year, and though it may not directly relate to the college social scene, such a talk should be a clear reality check on and raise awareness of the whole area of appropriate and inappropriate sexual conduct.
  • In the spring, have a panel presentation by current college student alumni to discuss the social issues, the reality of college party behavior, and offer advice on how to manage the issues college social life presents. This college student panel could be combined with a college dean to lay out the issues of student discipline in this area, and give an overview of how colleges are currently responding to, dealing with, and deterring sexual abuse.
  • Encourage faculty advisors of seniors to have one session (at least) in the spring of interactive discussion about the social issues around the collegiate sexual abuse phenomenon. It is important to get seniors articulating their understanding of what they think about the subject, and to consider what they believe they will face and how they can be prepared to deal with the choices involved. Certainly at the heart of these discussions, regardless of important practical advice, is a values-oriented focus.
  • Heads of school should address students about sexual activity and its challenges: the school community’s expectations and rules regarding appropriate behavior; sensitivity for others’ feelings in intimate relationships; support of responsible behavior, especially including substance use that is too often in the middle of the college sexual assault issue; and the positive impact of healthy, caring, and respectful relationships in life.

We should be clear: American colleges have long abandoned true en loco parentis policies and social governing operations, despite continuing to promote themselves as residential, learning communities offering housing and services to students. Conversely, independent schools, and especially boarding schools, must continue to regulate, structure, and maintain the parental-like oversight necessary to minimize social disruptions to educational life. In doing so, we are also and importantly, teaching responsible conduct. Finally, independent schools are respected for emphasizing and must continue to advocate moral, values-based relationship behavior that faculty and administration publicly promote whenever appropriate.

Addressing the realities of college social challenges and the current sexual abuse crisis is part of our mission of preparing our girls and boys for the world outside our campuses. Now is the time to make sure that preparation happens.