By Lindsay Gullingsrud
High school is that time for adolescents to ponder the values and behaviors that will help them transition into adulthood. It is a time to learn and grow. It is also a time for the adults in adolescents’ lives to model positive, healthy, and equitable behavior that we hope will be modeled as teens grow into adulthood. So what happens when the high school institution, adults, and peers participate in behavior that is counter to messages we want to teach? Is it a time to point fingers? Or, is it a time to stop, evaluate the levels of harm, be accountable for that harm, and turn it into a teachable moment for all involved?
The pep rally in Rosemount, MN, that happened earlier this month has received a great deal of attention. The responses have varied from outrage to pointing fingers at the parents and administration to others asking, “Where is the harm?” Let’s take a moment and unpack this event.
Pep rallies are a time to display school pride, support each other, and have fun. I recall it also being a time for the students to publicly make inside jokes about adult(s) at the school. The adults in the room never really understood what the laughter was about—after all, it was an inside joke. The planned prank during the pep rally in Rosemount was intended to be at the expense of the winter sport team captains, but it created a toxic school climate that came at the expense of many more. A colleague of mine said it best when she asked, “After all, in what venues would a sexualized kiss by a parent be appropriate? When is it a good idea to embarrass your kids in front of their classmates?” This prank has a ripple effect–one that goes beyond all involved. In order to speak to the ripple effect, ask yourself, “What would it feel like”:
- To “participate” in a passionate kiss in front of all your peers and find out it was your parent whom you were kissing?
- To be a student who was told to “participate” in a passionate kiss with a classmate of the opposite sex when you identify as lesbian or gay?
- To watch this if you were a student who had been sexually abused and/or exploited by an adult?
- To identify as a lesbian or gay and have to watch this?
- To be an adult in the room who was not okay with what was happening?
- To be a parent who didn’t want to participate?
- To be a parent who realized their kiss was sexualized, but it was too late to back out?
- To have this video go viral online?
- To be in a different state and you are currently being sexually abused and/or exploited by an adult, and you see the video and the reaction to it?
Think about all of the cheers and laughter. Where would you go? Who could you talk to? What would you say? Would you say anything?
Events like this happen because of the ripple effect of living in an environment that places sexual expectations on youth – male and female – that are often exaggerated, unhealthy, and unreal. Because many of us have grown immune to the sexual toxicity in the environment, at first glance this seems like just a harmless prank. Considered in the framework of the points made above, however, one can argue that it is a prank clearly at the expense of the youth, the parents and the audience. It calls for us to stop, rethink the implications, evaluate the possible levels of harm, be accountable for that harm, and find that teachable moment. If we don’t do that, we all lose.
Where do we go now? Everyone in that school is in need of an opportunity to “decode” or understand this event. What was it? How did it feel to me to participate or watch? What message is it possibly giving about fun, about intimacy, about adults and youth? Why would adults in the lives of these students have thought this was a good or even funny idea? This is a place to start. Through honest conversations and critical thinking, this can and will happen. Honest conversations will create solutions. Whether it be through a policy which addresses future decision making or policies that create a safe, healthy, and equitable environment, solutions can happen.
The Rosemount school administration did apologize – for offending – when the pep rally hit national news. Apologizing for offending is only a first step. They have the opportunity now to become an example for other schools by demonstrating their affirmative problem solving and to creating a safe and equitable environment for all students.
This is also a time for other institutions to take a look at their own policies and or put policies in place that support creating a safe, healthy, and equitable environment. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s all demand the change to the current status quo and start working toward solutions.