Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Something's Happening to Our Students: Opening a Dialogue about Sexual Harassment #SOL18

During the 1985-86 school year I taught half-time in the Urbana Community School District, a small hamlet in central Iowa with a student population of approximately 500 students K-12. I was pregnant with my second son and had moved to Iowa from Yuma, Arizona where I taught at Kofa High School, which had over 2,600 students when I left. 

Memories of my time in Iowa flooded back Monday as I met with the juniors in my student advisory and showed them two short videos I and my colleagues had been asked to share and discuss. The subject of these videos is Sexual Harassment. 

"Something is happening to our kids," a counselor wrote in an email accompanying the videos Friday afternoon. We're seeing an increase in sexual harassment among our students. 

Our counselors sent the videos and a copy of our district's Sexual Harassment policy, as well as copies of Idaho Code dealing with the distribution of Child Pornography and asked us to have a conversation with our students. Sexting is distribution of child pornography, according to Idaho Code.

I read the policy and the legal code first. 

Then I showed the videos. 

When the young woman in the second video hit "send," I heard a gasp in the room. 

At that moment memories from over thirty years ago flooded my mind, for that's the year several seventh and eighth grade students shared a story about abuse they had experienced from a school counselor in our building.

In 1986 Iowa reporting laws mandated reporting to the "building supervisor." I did not trust this authority figure to pass the information on to law enforcement; therefore, I reported the abuse to the Grant Wood Area Education Association school psychologist who was in the building at the time. She, in turn, reported the incidents to law enforcement. 

One of the investigators on the case was married to a colleague, so when Ross Lamansky, the counselor, was arrested, the investigator called me. I lay in bed and sobbed for my students and for the perpetrator, whom I learned had been passed from school district to school district to spare each employer the embarrassment of having a sexual predator on their staff. 

I learned that Mr. Lamansky, whom I'd judge to be a man in his fifties or sixties at the time, had a reputation in both Iowa City and Kirksville, Missouri, where he was known as "the hooded grabber" because he'd stand on street corners with a hoodie covering his head and grab women by various body parts as they passed on the street. 

The Lamansky incident divided the school, with older students remaining loyal to the counselor and junior high students loyal to the abused. High school students wore black arm bands to school one day as a show of solidarity for Lamansky. But I knew he was guilty. My investigator friend shared information with me throughout the investigation, and I traveled through a blizzard from Cedar Rapids to Vinton for the depositions. 

The day of Lamansky's trial, I was walking out the front door when the phone rang. I paused and answered. Lamansky had accepted a plea deal. He admitted guilt to "two counts of indecent contact with a minor." He went to jail. He lost his teaching credentials. Most importantly, Iowa changed its reporting laws. No longer would teachers report to the building supervisor; now they would report to law enforcement. 

I shared my memory with students. I told them, "often we don't realize we have a problem in our schools if it doesn't involve us or if we don't hear about it." I encouraged students to talk to one another and teachers, to support friends in making wise decisions when confronted with inappropriate behavior. 

Our kids are not alright. They each have a digital dossier They each face ongoing pressure to use technology in harmful ways. We all do. But our building administration wants us as a staff to have open discussions with students about what's happening to them and ways they can protect themselves. Even though some of my colleagues see this discussion as an extension of the "nanny state," teachers in my department understand the power of stories and sharing those stories, so we're making guiding students through these struggles a priority because we don't like what's happening to our students, and we'll do what we can to restore them to a place of safety.
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  1. I remember those years in Iowa and know of a few educators passed on to other districts. It was so wrong. It's hard to teach kids about any kind of harassment these days when they see it all around them and see it as acceptable. My district is working on this also. Keep fighting the good fight!

  2. I hope the guy suffered in jail. (I think of myself as a forgiving and kind person, but something snaps when it comes to sexual assualt & children.). My daughter's middle school was rocked by a series of sexting episodes. Middle school! Too often after bad stuff happens, kids dive into the peer group and don't get the perspectives and guidance they need. I love that you framed school as a supportive place kids should remember to call on when they need help.