With the prevalence of the #YesAllWomen social media wake-up call that illustrated just how blind men are to the sexual harassment we inflict on females, I’ve been wrestling with how to address this issue. As I’ve let it ruminate in my brain-space, I have come to these two conclusions. I had no idea, and I need to do something. Reading through the tweets opened my eyes to how I’ve seen this affect even those I work with in this past year.
Something happened recently in my own neck of the wood involving some of my Special Needs students and the staff that works with them. The crazy thing about working in Special Needs in middle school is that this is the time when puberty hits, and it hits in unpredictable ways. It is always a new experience for the staff and students; many of whom cannot process nor like the changes happening to them. Sometimes, for one reason or another, they act on an impulse that the rest of us know (or have been taught) to suppress. One student focused on one set of… features on one of the staff members that worked with him. This is not a big deal because it is a learning opportunity for the student to learn how to appropriately interact with others. He would come up to her a lot aggressively in several settings regardless of her outfit.
One of our activities every week is to go swimming with ALL of the secondary level Special Needs students. There is no issue when it comes to splashing and playing around in a pool in swimsuits and trunks. However, this student saw this person who he has focused on, and made several passes at to get a closer look at her… features. One day he almost followed her around the pool while someone was holding him back. Like I said, not a big deal, but a learning opportunity.
Sometime before the next week’s swimming time I received an email from one of the other male staff members asking that (and I’m paraphrasing) we ask our female staff members to wear an extra layer to help the students who are becoming more interested in the female body. There were many layers in this email that was upsetting to me, but I took several minutes to respond before showing it to my coworker.
My response via email to all involved: I want to state that I understand the thinking behind this, but disagree with making women, who are wearing full-coverage suits, change. When I showed it to my coworker she broke down because it made her feel like she was doing something wrong. This email, though it tried to be politically correct, was an example of how quick we can be to misinterpret a learning opportunity for a young male into the fault of a woman. There was nothing remotely wrong with what she wore or how she acted.
I have been working in Special Ed for 9 years now, and there are a few constants in the things we teach in a Life Skills program like mine: You teach the kids to be safe, and you teach them to keep others safe. They are not allowed to play with the hot stove, and they are not allowed to sexually assault anyone. Some students do not like loud noises, but when there is a fire alarm, they still have to exit the building. Some students may have questions about the female body (or their own) as they go through puberty, but they do not get to explore either one anywhere or anytime they want.
This situation was upsetting to me, because I have a young daughter, and this following tweet from the #YesAllWomen campaign truly hit home, because my daughter doesn’t yet know that there truly are monsters in the world:
This whole situation seemed to be making excuses for behaviors and placing the blame where it didn’t need to be (on a woman), and not exploring the cause of the behaviors. I tell ALL my students that they may have a disability, but they do not have an excuse. Apparently, I should reiterate that to the adults that work with them.