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Failing Girls in Schools

By Andrea Johnston

Current Events Quiz: What do the following two events have in common? How are they different? Hint: include an obvious issue such as gender in your response.

Event 1: “You could tell that he wanted the females,” said a student at Platte Canyon High School in Colorado after a gunman dismissed male students, sexually assaulted female students in a classroom, then killed one teenage girl and himself when a SWAT team appeared.

Event 2: Less than a week later, the commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police said a 32 year-old gunman who barricaded doors with bolts and lumber from his pick-up truck in a one-room Amish schoolhouse “wanted to find female victims”. The intruder used the wire and pliers he brought with him to bind the captured girls’ legs before he executed or wounded ten girls ages 6 to 13.

The answers in the media and in most offices and neighborhoods have failed to take the hint. Yet it’s a safe bet that girls from first grade to high school in this country do see the big picture, in part because it’s clear as glass to them that going to school is more deadly for them—in the USA, not just Afghanistan. One lesson for the rest of us is that if we examine the links to sexism and pedophilia, especially with our children, we will be safer, stronger and less likely to repeat weeks such as this.

The reality is that anyone with the same biological characteristics regardless of their character, family, or anything else, was targeted to live or die in US schools that were almost a continent apart. How comfortable are we using the word sexism, which is among the best characterizations of what happened in bucolic Nickel Mines and small town Colorado, in searching for answers? While the word may be out of favor, the phenomenon is obviously a deadly one on and off campus. If we believe that it’s just a coincidence that girls were separated from boys by men who chose to terrorize and kill them, then we need to hit the books and revisit the origins and practice of prejudice.

I understand the impulse to raze the bloody schoolhouse, but not to ignore what lessons our children will carry with them about their gender and self-worth. The Amish community literally walked their talk after the massacre. They went to the perpetrator’s home, and offered forgiveness and a continuing place in the community. Will you meet at your kitchen table, and discuss compassion and anger? Is how you felt when you realized that you are the same gender as the perpetrators or the victims a viable topic in your home?

We also live in a global community, and it’s reasonable to talk about what, if any, are the links between these men targeting girls, and the fact that girls and women in every country are treated worse than boys and men. How will you support a son who knows that boys can be chosen to live simply because they’re male, and for girls to die and be abused because they’re female? Will you skip a movie, and have friends meet to help each other explain the sexual violence on our sophisticated campuses and in one-room schoolhouses to our children, especially when our government characterizes a member of Congress who sexually solicited teenage boys online as sending “nasty messages” instead of acknowledging and condemning any manifestation of pedophilia? We are our children’s safety net, and their primary models of empathy and self-respect. Coming together as families and concerned adults to listen and talk openly will resonate deeper than images of screaming students.

My son can’t bear to hear the details of what happened in our schools. My niece is almost as angry as she is saddened. Unfortunately, neither is surprised that the media and our neighbors have not learned to look for deeper solutions in terms of sexist beliefs and practices. “Maybe if boys were killed, it would help people see,” they commented. I hate to even think this, but perhaps we accept the inevitability of girls as victims. In that case, we fail as a country.

ANDREA JOHNSTON is the author of Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self and the founder of the Girls Speak Out Foundation, an advocacy organization working with girls and their supporters on five continents. A 30-year veteran of public and private school teaching, Andrea convened and helped organize the First National Girls Conference at UNICEF House in New York in 1997. She has appeared in a Lifetime documentary, on CNN’s Talk Back Live!, and on local and national radio shows. She has also been a frequent keynote speaker at YWCA youth conferences, on college campuses, for parenting organizations, and in the General Assembly and Trusteeship Council of the United Nations. She has a son, Jesse, and lives in Northern California. Visit Andrea's web site at www.girlsspeakout.org.

Related links at Feminist.com by Andrea Johnston:

  • Girls Speak Out Column
  • Read an excerpt from Girls Speak Out: Finding Your True Self

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