Collective Leadership is Needed in Schools to Address Sexual Violence

By Lori Cohen, guest blogger and Art of Coaching Conference presenter

As an educator, it can feel like every week invites a new way to resist systems of oppression. Among mass shootings, the sanctioning of xenophobia, transphobia, and misogyny at our highest levels of government, and the continuing political chasm that divides our nation, we are called to find a new way of approaching equity in schools: a collective approach to address the issues we are confronting—communal solidarity and allyship to promote healing rather than hate. The following is one such way my school has approached this work.

Seeking Solidarity

Days after Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, I felt a range of emotions: fury, indignance, grief. I knew I wasn’t alone, especially when the women at my site met one day after school to talk about the confirmation hearings. In that meeting, we were able to be vulnerable with one another through our stories and reactions—aligned in our anger and outrage. While we were able to sit in solidarity and heal for a brief moment, we also knew it was time to assert our power and demand action. We decided on several steps: drafting and reading an open letter to the school community, holding open forums for students to share their experiences, shifting course curricula where appropriate—and finally, asking the men to take a more active stance against sexual violence.

Not Just Women’s Work

I’ve often posited that change and justice will only come about when members of dominant groups see the struggles of non-dominant groups as their struggles, too. The Nonviolent Direct Action campaigns of the Civil Rights era were collective enterprises in which White people worked alongside the Black community for racial justice. The landmark Supreme Court case that allowed same-sex couples to marry was fought by straight lawyers who recognized that all couples deserve “equal dignity under the eyes of the law.” And in advance of Dr. Ford’s testimony, 1,600 men co-sponsored an ad in The New York Times, asserting they would do their part to end a culture of misogyny. We are stronger as a nation when we can act in solidarity for the causes that further our common humanity. And it was powerful when the men in my school did their part to further the causes of women and girls.

When Men Do Their Part

Two of our male leaders, Our Dean of Academics and the Dean of Students stepped up and spoke out about sexual violence, and on the Monday after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, each leader addressed the community at our all-school morning meeting, talking about the personal impact of the hearings. Our Dean of Academics noted that while he is aware of his privilege, he still needs unlearn the sexism he was raised with, to recognize his blind spots, and to actively engage in the ongoing work of dismantling the patriarchal systems that demean women. Our Dean of Students compared the recent Saturday Night Live sketch in which Matt Damon played the role of Brett Kavanaugh to the sketch from the 1991 Clarence Thomas hearings. After the disturbing realization that not much has changed in 27 years, he prompted us to listen closely and compassionately to the stories of those around us, to believe those who have been harassed and assaulted rather than the distortions of our media.

Both of these talks were well received, yet I also knew that moments like these are beginnings rather than isolated instances if we want to see lasting change. I know our male leaders will have to continue to model their own learning processes to teach our boys how to be in the world.

Educating Our Boys

Additionally, six men who supervise an affinity space called “Boys Group” invited our male students to an open forum. Boys Group talks about issues of maleness and masculinity in hopes that students have a safe space to explore their identities, be vulnerable and increase their opportunities for learning. The results of the open forum conversation were mixed: at times enlightening, at times disheartening, and a very real picture of the divide our nation faces around sexual harassment and assault.

The male leaders of the group were surprised by some students’ responses; while there were those who had empathy for women’s experiences, there also were comments illustrating deep misunderstanding—with questions about why men should believe women. It is easy to dismiss these students’ views as ignorance, even to get angry; instead, our men demonstrated resolve by determining their next steps and considering ways to better educate our boys.

It’s All of Our Work

As for how I feel now: I’m hopeful. There were so many instances where all members of our school did their part to educate the community about sexual violence. While I know there is so much more to do, I’m optimistic that this kind of collective action is what our schools need to make a difference in the lives of your people. When we see everyone’s struggles as our struggles, when we stand up for injustice alongside those who are different from us, when we look inward at our own cultural conditioning and change our outward actions to demonstrate more empathy, when we do the ongoing work of dismantling systemic oppression, we take a collective step towards healing a divided nation and providing a better, more loving world for our students.


Lori Cohen is an experienced school leader, instructional coach, classroom teacher, and education consultant who has worked in public and independent schools for two decades; she cares deeply about educating for equity and believes coaching serves as the best form of professional development for teachers and leaders. She is also the author of Why Instructional Coaching Matters in Independent Schools, Breaking Down Barriers and Building Relationships, and Mindfulness As a Tool to Dismantle Systems of Oppression–Within Ourselves. You can find her on Twitter @lcctchr

The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.