The Kavanaugh allegations highlight a little-examined consequence of sexual assault

Could the discussion around Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh spark a #metoo movement in high schools?
Could the discussion around Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh spark a #metoo movement in high schools?
Image: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
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Christine Blasey Ford, the California woman who had anonymously made sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, went public yesterday (Sept. 16). In an interview with the Washington Post, she claimed that when she was in high school, in the early 1980s, Kavanaugh pinned her to a bed at a house party, groped her, and attempted to remove her clothes, as his friend laughed and watched.

The boys had locked the bedroom door and turned up some music, she said, so that she would not be heard if she cried for help. She accused Kavanaugh of putting his hand over her mouth when she tried to scream.

In the coming days and months, many aspects of Ford’s story will be picked apart and parsed by the media. But if history is a guide, her description of what the alleged assault did to her academic performance is at risk of passing without the outrage and deeper conversation—and tangible response—it deserves.

How sexual violence can derail a student

According to the Washington Post, Ford only came to realize years after that party (but many years before Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court), that what happened at that party left psychological scars. “I think it derailed me substantially for four or five years,” she told the Post’s Emma Brown, who wrote that Ford “struggled academically and socially.”

“In the longer term,” she added, “it contributed to anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms with which [Ford] has struggled.”

That portrait of the attack’s crushing effects is depressingly similar to those of many other victims. Her story shares much in common with a woman profiled by Quartz at Work in our recent feature about the systemic failure to stop sexual assault crimes in early adulthood, on college campuses, and to properly deal with their fallout before they lead to academic stumbling or withdrawal.

Poor grades in school are not necessarily life-altering, but they can be. They can limit opportunities and further harm a person’s sense of self-worth. Their damaging potential makes rape culture among students as much an issue of women’s thwarted ambition as it is one of repeated violations of human rights.

We’ve been made aware of this connection in #MeToo accounts from the workplace. We’ve mourned the unknown potential of all women, especially those who tend to get the most attention, like actresses, television journalists, or brilliant scientists. We’ve also acknowledged how a sexual assault, whether completed or attempted, can lead to financial instability, should a woman leave her career or not perform to her fullest.

But we have not yet quantified how sexual violence affects college and high school students before they’ve had a chance to enter their chosen profession. As the anonymous woman profiled in our story said, everything about #MeToo is “the workplace, the workplace, the workplace.”

“What about the kids before they go into the workplace? Their minds are polluted already,” she said.

A wake-up call to K-12 schools

As Quartz reported in the same story, Carol Jordan, an academic at University of Kentucky who studies violence against women, examined the impact of sexual assault on 750 first-year college students at her school four years ago. Its results are noteworthy: Women who said they had been the victim of sexual aggression were more likely to have a lower GPA by the end of their second semester.

Most surprising to Jordan, she told Quartz, was how many of the surveyed students said they were victims of sexual assault in high school: 40% of the first-year university students.

Nearly one in four women also said they’d been victimized in their first semester, and nearly one in five, or 20%, reported the same at the end of the second semester.

All of the women who experienced an incident saw their academic scores drop, but women who started college already living with the trauma of a past sexual assault—as Christine Blasey Ford alleges of her own history—saw even larger declines in their academic scores. They also started with lower GPA scores than peers who had not been attacked.

Her study does not establish causation. However, the debilitating effects of sexual violence are well documented. Victims, she says, can be drained by depression and anxiety. They may find it difficult to think clearly or focus, “such that she is less able to concentrate, organize a set of facts, or remember details in the course of her studies,” Jordan wrote in the study.

The beginning of change

Last spring, months before the #MeToo movement exploded, an astonishing story from the Associated Press revealed a terrifying number of sexual assaults in K-12 schools between 2011 and 2015, across the US. Using education records and federal crime data, journalists found 17,000 cases of reported sexual crimes, they wrote, “from rape and sodomy to forced oral sex and fondling.” It was the largest tally of sexual assaults in America’s schools.

“It occurred anywhere students were left unsupervised: buses and bathrooms, hallways and locker rooms. No type of school was immune, whether it be in an upper-class suburb, an inner-city neighborhood or a blue-collar farm town,” the AP said.

Its investigation also found evidence of cover-ups at schools, with events falsely recorded as incidences of bullying or consensual behavior.

Keep in mind that sexual assaults are severely underreported and that this project only covered events happening on school grounds, not at parties like the one described in Ford’s account. In other words, 17,000 is probably an extremely conservative figure.

The AP’s investment into its investigation may be a sign that sexual assault in high schools are will come under greater scrutiny.

Also promising: Some lawmakers are beginning to recognize high schools have failed at educating victims about what victimization looks like. Unfortunately, more than half of US states do not require high schools to teach students about consent, but the larger #MeToo discussion has prompted several states to consider new rules (paywall).

Researchers are also beginning to measure the prevalence of sexual-assault related post-traumatic stress disorder in college students, and the rates of withdrawals as a result. (There is no national database that tracks withdrawals or transfers from colleges triggered by sexual violence.)

Hopefully, as data is collected, institutions will have little choice but to become more transparent, make changes that would better protect all students, and empower survivors of sexual assault to speak openly and seek treatment for the pain they’re suffering.

As Kavanaugh’s nomination process proceeds and Ford continues to tell her story, this may be a prime opportunity to put these goals on the nation’s agenda.