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VOL. 42 | NO. 40 | Friday, October 5, 2018

Prep schools confront Kavanaugh fallout

Senate hearings open door to difficult topics

By Linda Bryant

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Brad Gioia hasn’t had to ask himself whether he should bring up the subject of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious journey to the Supreme Court – or the cauldron of troublesome societal and behavioral issues associated with it – within the walls of Montgomery Bell Academy.

Gioia says he welcomes the opportunity and thinks the fact that MBA is an all-boys school gives him, and other educators at the school, the chance to talk with young men in ways that create a sense of trust that might not be possible in a co-educational environment.

“I am very versed and engaged in this issue, and I am less and less shy about making these difficult topics part of the public debate at MBA,” Gioia explains. “We use them to take the opportunity to talk about how to be a better man and individual. We can be direct with the boys.’’

The 151-year old boys’ private college preparatory school, which formed in the aftermath of the Civil War, currently enrolls about 770 students from seventh to 12th grade and is located on a 45-plus acre campus at 4001 Harding Road on Nashville’s west side.

Gioia, who has served as headmaster at MBA since 1994, is regarded as a national leader among single-sex school educators. He was president of the International Boys School Coalition and serves on the board of trustees for the organization, which advances and advocates for all boy’s school education.

It’s critical, Gioia explains, for young men to discuss sexual harassment and abuse and the current #MeToo movement happening in the wider culture openly in an educational environment.

He refers to MBA’s motto, “Gentlemen, Scholar, Athlete” and links the three descriptors back to the issues at hand.

“It may sound old-fashioned, but I think it’s important work for the ‘gentleman, scholar and athlete’ to talk openly about empathy and respect for women,” Gioia says. “Here at MBA ask: What is it that’s going to help you become a better man?”

“Boys don’t necessarily engage others when talking about their feelings and inner thoughts,” Gioia adds. “We can really take the opportunity to create a moment and confront difficult topics. MBA is a great place to do it.”’

Will Allen, who graduated from MBA in 2016 and now goes to Kenyon College in Ohio, says his MBA experience helped prepare him to be sensitive to tough social issues and to make the transition to college. At college, Allen adds, there’s more freedom and more of a choice to make questionable choices.

Allen transferred as a sophomore to MBA from a co-ed school. He says his three years at MBA helped him develop a sense of self that makes it less likely to engage in risky college behaviors.

Montgomery Bell Academy headmaster Brad Gioia sends his small student group off to classes after their morning discussion.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“I had a pretty positive attitude about going to an all-boys school,” Allen acknowledges. “I liked the concept of not having to worry as much about the high-school dating scene. We didn’t have to deal with male posturing around women and trying to seem like the alpha male. Guys were able to be pretty open with each other.

“Plenty of us talked about what was going on in our lives, and the school was always good about bringing up difficult issues in the classroom or in assemblies,” Allen continues. “We talked about all kinds of issues being talked about openly – from sexual abuse to drug abuse to mental health issues. Teachers always emphasized respect of women and proper behavior [with women.]

Binge drinking, yearbook entries

The controversy related to Judge Kavanaugh’s yearbook entries, which some believe are coded messages for drinking and sex, has prompted MBA to pay closer attention to the school’s yearbook.

“Our yearbook staff and advisor review all yearbook entries,” Gioia says. “The current issues have raised our concerns even more so, and we are evaluating further expectations in this area.”

When it comes to drinking and drug use, Gioia says the school has strict policies with consequences.

“We have explicit rules about alcohol and drug use and clear penalties,” he says. “The expectation is that the school rules are in effect 24/7.”

MBA administration and MBA parents structure alcohol and drug-free events throughout the year to further guard against phenomenon such as unsupervised teenage parties.

For example, every year the school hosts Project Graduation, an overnight party on graduation night that begins 11 p.m. on the evening of graduation and ends at 4:30 a.m. the next morning.

The event was created 25 years ago after a tragic accident involving an MBA senior. One-hundred percent of students participate, and organizers say Project Graduation has been successful in eliminating smaller, exclusive, private parties that do not include all students.

2016 alumni Allen says the school’s approach to curb teenage drinking was helpful to him as he navigated his high school career.

“In high school you’re very aware of the possibility of [experimentation with] alcohol and drugs,” Allen says. “It’s probably unrealistic to think it’s never going to happen to anyone ever at school, but MBA does a pretty great job of preventing problems or dangerous situations from happening. You really don’t see those kinds of wild parties when the parents are away happening.”

‘All girls matter’

A few miles down the road at Harpeth Hall School, young women are also engaging in frank conversations about the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment and abuse and Judge Kavanaugh’s controversial approval process.

Olivia Olafson addresses classmates at Harpeth Hall school. during an all-school assembly.

-- Submitted

Harpeth Hall, which began in 1865 as Ward Seminary and became Harpeth Hall in 1951, also is private and serves 770 young women, fifth through 12th grade. It is considered a sister school to MBA.

Jennifer Adams, director of community support and inclusion at Harpeth Hall, says conversations about such serious societal topics often happen in a program at the school called Life Balance.

“Life Balance classes are taught by licensed counselors and designed to provide a safe, small-group setting to help adolescent girls examine the topics they face which ultimately have an impact on their health, safety and wellbeing,” Adams says.

“The program is based upon a wellness model and focuses on topics like character development, personality style, relational aggression, conflict resolution, stereotypes, body image, alcohol and drug education, human sexuality, stress management and personal safety and responsibility. It is a student-centered approach that includes open discussion, films and role-playing scenarios.

“Harpeth Hall creates a safe space for these conversations,” Adams continues. “The girls can talk freely about situations that apply to them and their gender, and the counselors can talk about gender roles in social situations. The girls are figuring out who they are becoming, and we help them find their voice which plays a role in developing their confidence.”

In the same vein, Gioia says MBA has a unique advisory system that allows for deeper engagement with personal issues and societal topics. Every student in grades 7-12 has a personal contact with a teacher outside the classroom. The goal of the system is to establish a rapport between the teacher and his or her advisees that will focus on areas other than simply academic interest.

Advisors meet regularly with students either in groups or individually to discuss school issues, athletic and extracurricular participation, grades and concerns of special interest to individual students.

Jess Hill, interim head of school at Harpeth Hall, uses an anonymous quote from an alumna to illustrate the societal moment happening because of #MeToo and the Judge Kavanaugh hearings – At Harpeth Hall, girls matter, they really matter.

“The statement is a quotation from an alumna many years ago, but it seems to be especially significant in 2018,” Hill adds. “When the adults around us in 2018 are trying to respond appropriately to accusations brought about by the #MeToo movement, it is important for girls and young women to have a place where they are heard, and they matter each and every day.

“We talk a great deal about confidence at Harpeth Hall, as opposed to ‘self-esteem.’” Hill continues. “The self-esteem movement of the 80s and 90s earned a bad name for itself through the ‘everyone gets a trophy’ backlash. Articles such as “How the cult of self-esteem is ruining our kids” [The Atlantic, July/August 2011] described a depressed, fragile and needy adolescent who was not capable of self-reliance and independence. They had been coddled too much, in an effort to build self-esteem.

“At Harpeth Hall, we use a college professor’s definition of confidence as ‘the willingness to turn thoughts into action.’ We know that girls are competent in so many ways, but we know that it is confidence that leads a girl to speak up when she has been wronged or to stretch herself or to take risks or stay strong in defeat. We help our students build the resilience that is necessary to be the people they want to become.”

Like MBA, Harpeth Hall monitors closely for signs of alcohol and drug abuse and oversees yearbooks by having two faculty sponsors screen content. The girls have access to licensed counselors at all times on campus.

Social and emotional issues surrounding abuse of any kind are also addressed in the school’s Life Balance classes, which provide a small-group environment in which the girls can talk about difficult issues freely.

Experts weigh in

Elizabeth Self, director of Vanderbilt University’s TLUS program (teaching and learning in urban schools), says cultural phenomenon such as the #MeToo movement and the ongoing Kavanaugh controversy, ideally should motivate educators and school administrations to address difficult issues head on – and in ways that are integrated dynamically into many aspects of school life.


“[Educators] have the potential, and perhaps the responsibility, to start asking questions and providing the historical and societal context to such issues,” Self says. “It’s important to open the spaces at school that will help kids think differently, so that when they have to make choices in their own life these issues are somewhere in their consciousness.

“[You want them to be] thinking about their own responsibility to society and not just to themselves individually,” Self adds. “Schools didn’t make these problems, and they’re not responsible for solving these problems, and yet, they do have the responsibility not to perpetuate them.”

Self, who taught in an all-girls charter school in Chicago earlier in her career, says single-sex schools have the potential to create “safer spaces” for students to talk about difficult gender issues than co-ed schools.

“Hopefully [in a same-sex school setting] you do have a group of people in a unique space who feel like they can talk about these things without worrying about how they will be perceived by another sex at that particular moment,” Self adds. “You can have safety that doesn’t involve peers of the opposite sex, and it can be easier to disclose in that setting.”

Tennessee native Laura McGuire, founder of the Florida-based National Center for Equity and Agency and a national expert who works with schools to prevent sexual assault, agrees.

“There are definite benefits to teaching students in a single-sex environment,” McGuire offers. “Research shows that students are most receptive to prevention and sexuality conversations when they are in small cohorts of peers that they feel safe with. This allows for more honest questions, more open conversation and positive peer support.”

Despite being positive about same-sex schools’ ability to address difficult gender-issues in unique and effective says, Self and McGuire both warn about a potential downside.

“Single-sex schools tend to foster these sorts of [trusting] environments,” McGuire notes. “The downside is not hearing how the opposite gender feels about these topics which can create a homogenous mindset.”

Self adds a similar perspective. “I think it’s possible that without [treating the situation carefully] a false sense of security can be created in a same-sex school,” she says, adding that the most important thing at any school is attention to the “climate and culture” at school.

“Do students feel like they can speak up or do they know who they can go talk to?” she asks. “Are there consistent spaces they can go to when they need to talk to somebody? What will be offered in times of trauma when students feel like they may be singling themselves out or revealing something about themselves?

“It really needs to become a years-long effort to create a climate and environment where students feel like these issues are worth talking about,” Self continues. “You want to create a place where [students] can talk without fear or judgment from peers or raise the eye of teachers and administrators.”

Self is a strong advocate of integrating complex and controversial societal issues into the school in ways that go beyond lip service.

“If I’m teaching a science class, history class, an English class or math class and never talk about sexual harassment or abuse then [a student might conclude] that these subjects have nothing to do with the issue.”

But Self says tough societal problems such as sexual harassment and abuse can be creatively addressed even in math and science classrooms by studying and/or talking about relevant aspects – from how data is collected that counts the number of victims of sexual violence to studying what happens in the brain during and after trauma.

“We really have this idea about school, that the things we spend time on and devote energy to are what we think are worthwhile,” Self adds. “If sexual assault only comes up in a particular moment when [a student] wants to talk about it, it’s not really a significant part of school.

“The biggest thing that I want teachers and parents to know – and I’m a parent with three young children – is that it’s good to talk to other parents about how they talk to kids about these things,” Self continues.

“So much of the solution is about making space and opening up conversations and just continuing to have them over time. It’s not a one-shot conversation. It’s about being there as a confidante over time and giving a message that says, anytime you want to talk about this you can come to me.”

“It does take some skill as a teacher to say, “I’m going to make time and I’m going to make space for this difficult issue or topic,” Self concludes. “But it’s so important, and we know the dangers of not doing it.”

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