Audrie Pott’s suicide has been all over the news recently following the arrest of three Saratoga High School boys who allegedly participated in her sexual assault last September. This case, unequivocally tragic, brings up many questions and forces many people to ask the obvious one: how could this have happened?
If you are not familiar with the case, last September over Labor Day weekend, Audrie Pott, a 15-year-old Saratoga High School student, went to a party with about a dozen friends. There was alcohol at the unsupervised party, and Audrie became intoxicated, so much so that she passed out. When she awoke, she found her underwear removed and messages written on her body including some her near her genitalia. Shortly after this incident, Audie hanged herself. As information came out, it became clear that cell phone pictures of Audrie being sexually assaulted had been distributed among her fellow students. Audrie had also written cries for help on her social network profiles and mourned openly about what happened that night.
To say that this act is reprehensible and malicious would be the Leviathan of understatements. However, when Los Gatos-Saratoga Union High School District Superintendent Bob Mistele issued a statement on behalf of the district, it left pertinent questions unanswered: What did the high school know? And more importantly, what did they do about it? There are varying reports with regard to the first question, and it is impossible to know exactly who knew what and when. However, Mistele did answer the question as to why the three students were not suspended or expelled:
California’s Education Code §48900(s) limits the jurisdiction of a school district to impose discipline (suspension or expulsion) only for acts that are “related to school activity or attendance.” While questionable or unlawful acts may occur at any time, the code lists four primary examples: while on school grounds, while going to or coming from school, during the lunch period whether on or off campus, and during or while going to or coming from a school sponsored activity. That was not the case here. School districts cannot suspend or expel someone from school based solely on alleged behavior outside of school.
It may seem strange, but if a student sexually assaults another student, so long as it is not on campus or at a school-sponsored activity, that student cannot legally be suspended or expelled. The bureaucratic nature of our education code helps paint the ugly picture many people have about administrators, teachers, and schools as uncaring people and institutions who systematically condone this type of behavior through indifference.
Many people’s first impression is to throw the book those responsible, to punish them and achieve some sense of justice. Expel them. Imprison them. There is a call to prosecute them as adults. But this event begs much deeper and introspective questions: how do we as adults and teachers take an active role in ensuring this never occurs again? How are we raising our boys? Why does this despicable culture of cyberbullying exist, and why are many adults oblivious to the warning signs? How do we teach responsibility and social justice?
In our classrooms, we have a unique opportunity to be someone else to our students. We are not parents. We are not friends. We are teachers. We are adults who students ultimately know are somehow important in their lives whether they want to admit it or not. I know our jobs are hard. I know we have to teach too many concepts in too little time. But we must do something. If we do not discuss stories and issues like this in our classrooms, we are doing our children a massive disservice because another Audrie could be sitting in one of our classrooms — or another potential attacker. And you can be sure these male students do not see themselves as criminals but jokers. This is because they do not know any better.
Odd as it may sound, I did manage to find a silver lining in this sad story. It came from conversations that I had with my students. Many of them shared similar comments after they had learned about the details of the incident, the writing on Audrie’s body. They discussed how it reminded them of an advertisement I had showed them in our media literacy unit. In this ad for Post-It notes, a man and woman are lying in bed in the morning not wearing much at all. Clearly, they had had a sexual encounter the night before. On the woman’s head is a Post-It with her name. The copy of the ad reads: “For all the little things you forget.”
My students commented how these boys ultimately saw Audrie as an object. They said that the attackers were victims of an internalized sexism that promotes boys to be sexual conquerors. They noted how Facebook, Instagram, and other social media sites promote “likes” at the cost of common sense and morality. Most importantly, these students were being critical thinkers. They were taking this real life current event and applying deep level thinking to it. They are also the same age as Audrie and her attackers. At that point I did not care what their CST scores said. Their grades faded in my mind as being relevant. All I cared about was how they could take this event and examine, on a profound level, why it matters.
I will conclude with the words of Elie Wiesel:
“And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”