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Local View: Duluth a leader on #MeToo; what are our next steps?

Elizabethada Wright and I recently completed assembling essays on the #MeToo movement for the online magazine Media Ethics. We looked at essays addressing #MeToo in Korea, Eastern Europe, and other places. It really is a global phenomenon.

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Denfeld’s 1947 boys basketball team is the only Denfeld basketball team to win a state title. The team’s head coach was Lloyd Holm. Team members were Rudy Monson, Larry Tessier, Paul Nace, Kenneth Sunnarborg, Eugene Norlander, Howard Tucker, Tony Skull, Jerry Walczak, Bruce Budge, Keith Stolen and student manager Bob Scott.

Elizabethada Wright and I recently completed assembling essays on the #MeToo movement for the online magazine Media Ethics. We looked at essays addressing #MeToo in Korea, Eastern Europe, and other places. It really is a global phenomenon.

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David Beard

Today I want to talk about the powerful history of Duluth in this work. In 1992, Duluth Central High School was the center of a national dialogue on sexual harassment. A student sued, and the Duluth school district began a process of responding to sexual harassment. After reviewing the case, I will argue it's time for our schools to move from responding to preventing sexual harassment and assault.

According to Seventeen magazine, when a student, "K," was a sophomore, a senior asked her if she knew what was written about her on the bathroom wall. On the stall was scrawled "K is a slut," offensive descriptions of sex acts, and, finally, "Here's K's number." The abusive boys could not even spell correctly.

K began to hate school. She cried every day, and home was no refuge. Her phone would ring, her parents would answer, and the caller would hang up. Were boys calling the number from the stall?

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Central High initially refused to deal with the graffiti, resisting requests to paint over it. By not preventing harassing behavior, the school violated the student's rights. K sued and won $15,000 for mental anguish.

What lessons did our school system learn? The district is now strong in responding to assault and harassment claims and strong in supporting victims. The district is less strong in helping young boys understand what sexual assault and harassment are and, so, less strong in cultivating healthy relationships with women.

At present, policy "413R - Prohibiting Harassment and Violence," notes that the school has two duties: to respond to complaints and to support the victim. Independent School District 709 will investigate, respond, remediate, and discipline all complaints, either formal or informal, oral or written, of improper actions or statements. Furthermore, the Duluth district will provide support for students identified as victims.

These clearly are policies the district needed in 1992. But the school's duty cannot only be to punish and to offer support to victims. The duty has to be more than just responding.

Boys interviewed in 1992 claimed to be ignorant of girls' feelings - not malicious. Twenty-five years later, some men and boys remain ignorant. There's duty in also teaching and preventing.

The district shared with me valuable statements affirming that "harassment and violence are unlawful, hurt all people and have no legitimate educational purpose." District officials informed me that the nonprofit First Witness does a good deal of work toward teaching students about positive relationships. But the responsibility cannot only be outsourced.

The district does a great deal to help students understand bullying as a form of harassment. But it would take a subtle mind to understand the graffiti K endured as a form of bullying. Teaching positive relationships, not just avoiding harassment, is territory yet ahead.

The stakes are high.

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Helena K. Dolan, in the Fordham Law Review, wrote about the obligations of schools: "The burden is placed on the school to discourage and eliminate sexual harassment," she said. "It is the same responsibility given to an employer for the acts of its employees."

If one mission of schools is workforce readiness, awareness of sexual assault and harassment is part of readiness.

Duluth had a 20-year head start on the #MeToo movement; let's trailblaze into the future together.

 

David Beard is an associate professor of rhetoric at the University of Minnesota Duluth. For more about media ethics and #MeToo, he suggests mediaethicsmagazine.com/.

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