Fallout from the Recent Sexual Harassment Presentation

by Sahil Veeramoney

In addition to the upcoming article on the harassment policy itself, the Dig wanted to address some of the controversy about the actual presentation. That said, in no way, shape, or form, will this article attempt to generalize the sentiments of the US student body and faculty as we are fully aware each individual is entitled to his or her opinion and feels differently about the presentation.

I came into the sexual harassment presentation during September 30th’s X period without much anticipation regarding the manner in which the presentation was going to be delivered. As Isabele and I already knew, we were going to be covering this topic for the Dig — I was ready to be attentive to the policy changes to highlight in my notes. Instead, I was surprised to see that the purpose of the presentation was to educate the student body about appropriate conduct, to explain harassment in-depth, and disclose potential consequences as a result of actions. The fact that the OES had comprehensively changed its sexual harassment policy was unaddressed.

Now, it is not my job to evaluate how Joy, our school lawyer, delivered her presentation and critique certain techniques used to engage the audience. It should be noted that I initially appreciated the approach that Joy had taken. It was refreshing to hear the topic discussed in such an open manner — as opposed to a bland, concentrated presentation where the litany of different scenarios would be recited in a non-engaging manner. Utilizing humor is a very effective tool to engage the audience and it was something I believed Joy had a great command of for the majority of her presentation.

I would, however, be remiss if I did not acknowledge certain points where I felt that the humor had gone too far or was unnecessary to a point where the original message was obscured and undermined. This came to a point where I found myself more stunned and focused on the surprise of certain audacious comments, rather than paying attention to the presentation itself. For example, when discussing the topic of “sexting,” her comment that we should “not call our lawyers yet,” and joke that all students had broken the law seemed forced. And when discussing appropriate student-teacher conduct, using the incident at Catlin Gabel in passing felt unwarranted.

There were many other subtle comments that I, and many others based on my discussions, found unnecessary in the context of the matter. Now, I am not saying because we are talking about sexual harassment that the presentation needed to be strictly formal. I appreciated how Joy approached the subject because that’s something not everybody would feel comfortable doing and I think it avoided the “beating around the bush” that typically happens, in my experience, with such sensitive topics. That said, I noticed there was one specific time during a series of jokes where the whole audience was in continuous shock. This was something that many other students took notice of.

“I believe it was important to make this information accessible to students…it’s an issue that has pushed many students to take their own lives. I feel sad that this great chance to start conversation was overshadowed by the tone, inappropriate language, and discussion about lots of other things besides the content itself and what changes we hope to make in our community,” said Maya C. ‘17, Senior Representative on Community Board. A statement that I, and many other members of the US student body, resonate with to some degree. Maya’s comment on the “inappropriate language” that was utilized serves as a segway to next topic I wanted to address.  

The language, specifically the use of the “n-word” and the “fa-word,” ended up being the centerpoint of the controversy about the presentation. I still remember the atmosphere of the room in the aftermath of when the n-word and the fa-word were both said. The stifled gasps and the uneasy glances that many members of the student body exchanged amongst one another did not go unnoticed.  “What confused me was the fact that she had been referring to the n-word earlier, but was actually saying ‘n-word’ instead of the actual word. Her accidental slip-up makes it seem more like saying the word, possibly in front of some audiences over others, is okay as it was something she felt comfortable enough to say, even though she regretted afterwards,” said Jethro S. ‘17, fellow Dig-writer and Editor. Something that I had also pondered personally during the aftermath of the presentation.

OES, however, responded in a proactive manner. Spearheaded by the efforts of Dori King, Director of Community Partnerships, and the Head of School, Corbet Clark, an impromptu meeting was held at the end of the day to address the concerns of many students and faculty regarding Joy’s comments and offer an apology by Joy to the offended parties. I personally appreciated the purpose of this meeting even though it does not take-back the comments that were made. I also know of many students who were not satisfied with the apology and wished for a more serious response.

Nonetheless, the topic that Dori had brought up regarding “forgiveness” was something that resonated with me in particular. I believe that in order to move forward we cannot dwell in the past. Rather, we should learn from our mistakes and strive for a better future. Joy was in a difficult position — how to present a lot of information to a group of 300+ teenagers. Her instinct was good: keep it lively, speak directly, use humor to engage. But she crossed some lines that are difficult to walk back from. I listened to her apology that Dori read and I believe she regretted her words. I forgive her for that. I also know there are students who weren’t satisfied.

For many in our community, a straight, white woman using those words is completely out of line. Period. But for the community as a whole, this has given us the opportunity to keep these important conversations going. It is clear there is much to discuss. On the other hand, I know that this may not be as easy to do for some and for good reason.

As a male student in this community, I can attest to the fact that receiving information about sexual harassment can be overwhelming. In all honesty, it is sometimes hard not to feel targeted or feel like the information and that laws might be especially biased against me. But that’s just the nature of the situation and something that I am doing a better job of recognizing.

It is easy to point out flaws and direct criticism towards Joy’s presentation. Were there some things she could have changed? Yes. Could she have cut-back on some of the misinterpreted humor and offending phrases? Also, yes.

However, let us not forget the great job that Joy did in many aspects of her presentation. The information that was made accessible to all the student body and faculty is of critical importance in today’s society where sexual harassment is such an unfortunate prevalence. It was really unfortunate to see the information we received during the presentation to be overshadowed by the controversy that stemmed from the inappropriate language. I hope, however, that we can do our best as a community to grow from this experience and take the information on how to conduct ourselves to heart.