Unpacking Judge Kavanaugh with Your Students

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Maybe you’d normally be afraid to bring up the Blasey-Kavanaugh Hearing with your students, your 13-18-year-old students. Politics are a tough topic these days in America, a nation where kneeling, as in prayer, is considered heresy by those who proclaim themselves religious. And sex, well, sex is always a tough topic. But…

But… this isn’t just about sex and politics. It’s about boys and girls, men and women, assault and rape and molestation, consent and alcohol, and mostly, it’s about power. And it is, perhaps, the most relevant and important thing you can possibly discuss in school this October.

Judge Kavanaugh (right) in his high school yearbook

First, no matter what your role in education is, I need you to do this: Take the names out of this, take however you feel about abortion rights and health care and gerrymandering and presidential prerogatives out of this. And now, you are in your classroom, in your office, in a conference room — and two teens, privileged white suburban teens, tell you the two stories you heard Thursday, answer questions as they did Thursday — and… what do you think? Where do you think the truth lies.

I need you to do this so that you can help your students to do the same. Listen to the stories, read Kavanaugh’s calendars if you must, and try — just on what was said and how it was said — to construct a truthful narrative.

Why this is essential…

Dr. Ford at Senate Judiciary Committee hearing

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford presented one narrative on Thursday. I know that I have heard similar narratives before. Sometimes I have heard about last night. Sometimes I have heard about a day, an evening, a night, 30, 40, or 50-years ago. There is in my experience, rarely corroboration — the nature of the crime described — and unlike burglary, or robbery, there is usually a fear of publicly reporting. I’ve been a high school student, I’ve been a college student, I’ve taught at universities, I’ve been a police officer. I know this narrative — and I strongly suspect that most of your students know this narrative.

Judge Kavanaugh’s self-written high school yearbook paragraph

Judge Brett Kavanaugh presented another narrative Thursday. This narrative is familiar to me as well. And, again I strongly suspect, your students are familiar with it as well, although, to be perfectly honest, the “I like beer so I can’t be a sexual predator” tact is a new twist.

These two narratives — ”he attacked me and laughed about it” — and — ”I’m on the honor roll and my mother is a judge so it can’t be me" — represent very different understandings of the world, and what your students make of this, and how they will react now and in the hellish pressure cooker of alcoholic peer pressure, will determine their future in significant ways.

It is crucial here that students confront their prejudices and their privileges. They need to analyze the narratives and begin to make sense out of the chaos. How might a detective or a prosecutor see Kavanaugh’s testimony? What can we discover in Dr. Ford’s admittedly flawed memory?

Demonstrators outside the Capitol during the hearing

Those of us who have trained in, and experienced life in law enforcement will see different things than teenagers. And that is both obvious and logical. And yet we need to help students figure out how both logic and a personal morality gets us past, “he said, she said.” Because that may matter next Tuesday night when the boys gather for a few “skis" in an informal impromptu gathering and some things begin to get out of hand.

Judge Kavanaugh’s 1982 Calendar, and Thursday, July 1 notations

What will they believe? Who will they believe? Will they intervene? Will they report?

New Yorker magazine cover

It is not political grandstanding to bring these issues into the classroom. Gen X and Millennials were raised on “Stranger Danger" and “DARE.” No one really talked about date rape and the captain of the football team, much less date rape and the good Catholic boy on his way to Yale.

But please, do not simplify things. This is about sex, but it’s really about violence, and status, and privilege, and wealth, and entitlement. You need to let your students find their own way to this complex understanding of the world they live in.

Ask, “if Dr. Ford had yelled at Senators how would that have been reported?” “Does having a good GPA mean you can’t rape someone? and more importantly, “Why would a person use that as a defense?”

What do your kids think “Renate Alumni” implies?

Ask about Judge Kavanaugh’s “apology" to Renate Schroeder Dolphin. How do the kids in your class interpret Kavanaugh’s yearbook references to this girl/woman? What does this suggest about Kavanaugh?

And ask about their friends, family, classmates who drink? Who among those drinking too much would confess to being “mean" or “aggressive” while drunk? How do they see alcohol and sex mixing? What about alcohol and assault?

Stanford University swimmer, and convicted sexual criminal, Brock Turner. His case, his sentence, and his attempts to avoid remaining on sex offender registries, has upset women worldwide.

What I understand about statements comes from different experiences. My experience in law enforcement brings my beliefs in parallel with what the editor of Current Affairs understands in his encyclopedic look at the testimony:

“The existence of a “he said, she said” does not mean it’s impossible to figure out the truth. It means we have to examine what he said, and what she said, as closely as possible. If both parties speak with passion and clarity, but one of them says many inconsistent, evasive, irrational, and false things, while the other does not, then we actually have a very good indicator of which party is telling the truth. If a man claims to be innocent, but does things—like carefully manipulate words to avoid giving clear answers, or lie about the evidence—that you probably wouldn’t do if you were innocent, then testimony alone can substantially change our confidence in who to believe”

What I saw in Kavanaugh’s responses pretty much parallels what one former sex crimes prosecutor saw…

“Judge Brett Kavanaugh showed he is “disproportionately predisposed” to impose himself on women, a former sex crimes prosecutor explained [regarding the] instantly-infamous clip of Judge Kavanaugh avoiding a question by Sen. Amy Klobucher (D-MN) and instead trying to interrogate her.
‘“I gotta say, I was cringing at that one,” Witt noted. “Why was I cringing? Why was this such a significant part of the hearing for you?”
‘“Yeah, I mean, it took me a long time to recover from this,” noted Wendy Murphy, a professor at New England Law School. “It was extraordinary, it was rude, it was sexist, it was disrespectful, it was — the list goes on.”
‘“The reason, in my opinion, this was corroborative of Dr. Ford, is simply because that level of arrogance and entitlement — the idea that he was in a position to ask questions of the Senate Judiciary Committee — that level of entitlement is correlated with high incidence rates of sexual assault,” she explained.”
High School football star — and rapist — Trent Mays of Steubenville, Ohio gets another chance.

But that’s me. Your kids see other things:

Young people are listening to the controversy over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and they are talking about it. How can educators safely and productively bring these conversations into their school and classrooms?asks the Morningside Center/Teachable Moment as they begin their suggested activities.

Teachable Moment goes on to note: “When we have conversations with young people about violence and injustice in the world, it is vital that we don’t leave them feeling disengaged, hopeless, and powerless. As an antidote to that, talk with young people about what they can do. Have them learn more and join the conversation in digital spaces using hashtags like #WhyIDidntReport, #Believe Survivors, #MeToo, and #Survivors.

What can they do? What will they do? This conversation isn’t about 36 years ago to the teens in your class. It is about right now, or next Tuesday night, or Saturday afternoon. It’s very real, very current, and very important. Don’t abdicate your role as a leader for kids.

Bring it up.

  • Ira Socol