Classrooms: A lesson in the #MeToo era

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School sophomores Taylor Masteralexis, left, and Charlotte Staudenmayer, both members of the school’s Women’s Rights Club, talk about the #MeToo movement with the Gazette, Friday, at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional sophomore Maya Sessions talks with other members of the school's Women's Rights Club about the #MeToo movement on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School teacher Danielle Seltzer, left, is adviser to the school’s Women’s Rights Club. She discusses the club and talks its members had about the Kavanaugh nomination. Also pictured is sophomore Maya Sessions, a member of the club. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional sophomores Taylor Masteralexis, left, and Charlotte Staudenmayer, both members of the school's Women's Rights Club, talk about the #MeToo movement with the Gazette on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, at the high school. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional sophomore Maya Sessions talks with other members of the school's Women's Rights Club about the #MeToo movement on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional sophomores Taylor Masteralexis, left, and Charlotte Staudenmayer, both members of the school's Women's Rights Club, talk about the #MeToo movement with the Gazette on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018, at the high school. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students during a walkout at Northampton High School last month organized to demonstrate support of sexual abuse survivors spurred by the controversy over the Kavanaugh nomination for Supreme Court. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Students during a walkout at Northampton High School last month organized to demonstrate support of sexual abuse survivors spurred by the controversy over the Kavanaugh nomination for Supreme Court. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Cherilyn Strader, 17, left, and Adelaide Greene, 15, hold their hands up which say, “I believe them,” as part of a student organized walkout at Northampton High School to demonstrate support of sexual abuse survivors spurred by the controversy over the Kavanaugh nomination for Supreme Court. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Students during a walk out in at Northampton High school organized to demonstrate support of sexual abuse survivors spurred by the controversy over the Kavanaugh nomination for Supreme Court. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Students during a walk out in at Northampton High school organized to demonstrate support of sexual abuse survivors spurred by the controversy over the Kavanaugh nomination for Supreme Court. gazette file photo

  • Left, Kamini Waldman, 14, and Julia Albro-Fisher, 14, take a picture of their hands which say, “I believe them,” as part of a student organized walk out at Northampton High School to demonstrate support of sexual abuse survivors spurred by the controversy over the Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, a federal appeals court judge, arrives before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 5, for the second day of his confirmation to replace retired Justice Anthony Kennedy. He was later confirmed to the court.

  • Christine Blasey Ford testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thursday, Sept. 27, in Washington.

Staff Writer
Published: 10/16/2018 11:46:22 PM

At 2 p.m. last Wednesday classes at Northampton High School were over and most students were eagerly filing out of the building for the day — except for about 15 members of the school’s Democrats Club who gathered in a classroom for their weekly meeting with an atypical purpose: writing thank you cards to Christine Blasey Ford.

Cherilyn Strader, NHS senior and co-chair of the club, stood at the front of the room behind a desk with a stack of postcards. On the white board behind her was a mailing address for Ford,  who came forward with allegations that then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her when the two were in high school. She later testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as part of Kavanaugh’s nomination process.

Strader said she got the postcard idea when she saw Ford’s information posted on some activism social media pages. “You know what,” she recalled thinking, “I’ll just buy some postcards.”

“I think it’s super important to write them,” ninth-grader Kamini Waldman reflected on writing her letter, “because I want to show support for Christine Blasey Ford and show her we understand her and believe her … We have her back.”

“I think it’s sort of a thank you and reminder to her of what her sacrifice means,” Strader said about writing postcards.

These students aren’t alone in wanting to talk about one of the biggest issues to grip the country in recent months — Kavanaugh’s nomination and eventual appointment to the Supreme Court.

The controversial appointment came about a year into #MeToo, a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault that, though founded a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke, went viral last fall after the New York Times broke news of sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

Since then, students at schools throughout the Valley have taken the movement to heart — engaging in classroom discussions under the guidance of teachers, spearheading awareness-raising projects as members of school clubs and leading school walkouts in the name of empowerment.

As they wrote notes to Ford at the Democrats Club’s recent meeting, the students discussed Kavanaugh’s testimony and appointment to the Supreme Court. It was clear they had been following the news.

Though they did not always agree, students had a lot of opinions: Kavanaugh was disrespectful to senators while on the stand, he was too emotional in his testimony, the FBI investigation was too long or the FBI investigation was too short. Many expressed frustration that despite the allegations, he was confirmed to a powerful position.

At Amherst-Pelham High

Similar to the NHS Democrats Club, the Women’s Rights Club at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School also discussed the Kavanaugh hearings at a recent meeting.

Attendance was higher than normal, with more students showing up than chairs in the room, according to special education and English teacher Danielle Seltzer, who oversees the club. Leaders presented a timeline of events in Ford’s accusations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh and then held a discussion.

A larger variety of opinions than normal were represented at the meeting, recalled Charlotte Standenmayer, a 10th-grader and leader of the club.

“It was important to hear opinions I wasn’t hearing from friends and family all the time,” she said.

“It got quite heated,” said Maya Sessions, a 10th-grader and leader of the group.

After the meeting, she said she heard more people talking about the issue.

That’s precisely one of the goals of the Women’s Rights Club, which last school year found a way to turn the #MeToo conversation to their own school community.

The club made a display about student’s experiences with sexual harassment that hung in the school for months.

Students could submit anonymous stories about their own #MeToo experiences in a box in the lunchroom and they were reviewed by Seltzer and principal Mark Jackson. The group then hung stories from the ceiling and created a bulletin board in the front hallway — a prominent but avoidable spot if students did not want to engage with the display — and the project stayed up for a couple months.

Stories ranged from instances such as female students being asked to smile by teachers to more serious encounters of sexual harassment, Sessions said.

“The goal was to show how many forms harassment takes,” Seltzer explained.

Principal Jackson said the project made the school community more aware. “Anyone inclined to distance themselves from these issues was forced to acknowledge their local importance. The club performed a valuable public service,” he said.

Support around the school for the project was mixed, said Standenmayer. “Either way, it got the conversation going, which was important,” she said. It made the issue real, she said.

“A lot of times in Amherst, we think stuff like this doesn’t happen as much,” said 10th-grader and a Women’s Rights Club leader Taylor Masteralexis. The project, she said, was an eye-opener.

Feminist Collective at NHS

Recently at NHS, Feminist Collective hung signs with a photo of Ford and information about her under the headline “Feminist Hero Fridays.” The group regularly puts up signs about feminists they think their peers should learn about, said NHS senior and Feminist Collective co-leader Zalia Maya. In the past she said they have featured Maya Angelou, Frida Kahlo and Gloria Steinem.

“These posters aim to help everyone understand who Dr. Ford is. Having her fight on display in the school is bringing awareness to the fight of survivors everywhere,” Willa Sippel, a junior and co-leader of the Feminist Collective, commented in an email.

The group also addressed issues of sexual crime in their own school. Last March, an NHS janitor was arrested for taking photos of someone naked in the school’s first floor women’s restroom. Reports found holes in the ceiling of the restroom above the toilets. The janitor pleaded guilty and in August was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail.

“As a young woman I do not feel safe in the bathroom,” Maya said.

“People I’ve talked to still feel a little on edge in the restroom,” she added.

So in late September, the Feminist Collective put hundreds of Post-it notes with affirming messages on them in the first floor bathroom.

“It was to try and create a safer space in what should have already been a safe space,” Maya explained.

NHS students also organized a 15-minute walkout several weeks ago in support of Ford and Deborah Ramirez, a woman who accused Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in a New Yorker article. Holding signs with messages such as “I believe survivors” and “I still believe Anita Hill” they joined a national #BelieveSurvivors event in which other groups also walked out.

“It was quite moving just to see everyone outside and protesting,” Maya said.

She thinks the walkout helped open people’s eyes, but still, she thinks there is a ways to go. “Everyone can say, ‘yes rape is bad,’ but that doesn’t mean the stigma against rape victims and the rape culture has changed,” she said.

She doesn’t think our culture fully understands what’s problematic. “What we’re saying,” she said, “Is that you don’t overstep boundaries.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com


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