Grant HS students, staff rally after teacher writes letter dismissing 'rape culture'

Teacher's 'rape culture' letter causes uproar

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Grant High School students and officials spent Monday responding to a letter about rape culture written by a history teacher that was distributed to students and staff at the school last week.

The school is investigating the incident. The school provided counselors for staff or students to speak with about the situation.

Students and some teachers held a rally outside of the school before class Monday. Many wore red articles of clothing and carried signs with messages about rape culture.

“This is a rally of students and staff for support and to show solidarity,” said Grant junior Zoe Estep Chaw. 

"I don't think it's wrong to teach about rape, but this teacher's views are not [a] balanced perspective on rape that's going to support young women and young men and young people in general," said Susan Anglada Bartley, a teacher at the school.

Estep Shaw said the incident inspired her to action.

"I felt attacked. I felt frustrated. I felt vulnerable," she said. "And then I kind of moved to where I am now. More disappointed and kind of more action-oriented in how we can move forward from this, and how we can prevent it in the future."

The teacher reportedly interrupted a discussion on gender and rape culture taking place inside a classroom that was not his own last week to voice his opinion on the topic of rape culture.

The teacher wrote a three-page letter denouncing rape culture and handed it out to students and staff the next day. In the letter, the teacher apologized for interrupting the classroom discussion but wrote that he finds "assertions of rape culture dubious" and that "the very wording of 'Rape Culture' seems to me a bit hysterical."

"Rape culture is a theoretical construct that is ill defined," the teacher wrote in the letter. "What exactly is “rape culture'? I don't see it in my life or the lives of any of the men and women I have known."

RELATED: Read the letter (page 1, page 2, page 3)

One student said Sunday she didn't think the teacher was trying to hurt any feelings. She said she thought he was trying to convey a different way of looking at rape culture. Still, she said his status as a white, educated man skews his perspective.

“He sees a very small portion of this very large issue. Because in his essay he says, 'no one in my life experiences this; I personally haven't.' But I think he's missing the greater story,” said Elise Abrams, a junior at Grant High School.

Abrams said reports that the teacher handed out the letter to a class of freshmen students was the greater issue.

“My issue was, specifically, the audience. In my opinion, going back to when I was a freshman, I would not be able to receive this information and the caliber he wrote it at,” Abrams said.

“I know that I wouldn't be able to comprehend that if a teacher handed it to me in a classroom,” said Aili Laurila, who is also a junior at Grant High School.

Portland Public Schools sent a letter to the Grant High School community that read as follows:

You may be aware of an unfortunate incident regarding a document written by a teacher and shared with students regarding "rape culture." It included some statements that run counter to the way we approach this important subject. The perspective of the teacher does not reflect nor support our approach to educating students on sexual assault.  A strong contradictory argument should be accompanied by counter arguments from credible sources. In this case, the document was shared with many students and staff with very little context. We apologize for any harm or negative impact. We are working with students and some staff members to organize listening sessions and opportunities for adults and students to get support. It is our primary goal to ensure Grant is a safe place for all.

The group Women Against Violence Against Women said feminists introduced the term "rape culture" in the 1970s. According to the WAVAW website, the term was designed to show the ways society blames victims of sexual assault and normalizes male sexual violence.

Adrienne Graf, a program coordinator for the Women’s Resource Center at Portland State University, said sometimes privilege can come into play when a person isn't experiencing an issue themselves.

“As a white woman I'm able to opt in or opt out of noticing all of the extremities of racism. It might be really easy for me to notice these big large things happening,” said Graf. “The smaller, maybe verbal or emotional things that happen on a daily basis that lead into racism, I have to opt into noticing that because my white privilege means those things aren’t happening to me. So if I don’t experience them, I don’t have to see them."

Graf also said the definition of rape culture can be broad. Both big and small acts can normalize violence against women.

“Hooting and hollering from a car window or maybe calling a young women a slut or not believing her when she says she was sexually assaulted,” said Graf as she listed off actions she says are a part of rape culture.

Graf said in our society, we don’t question our friends and family who were robbed or had another crime committed against them. She said often sexual assault victims are asked questions like, "What were you wearing" or "Why were you there?" or "What did you do?"

“We have a large cultural phenomenon of not believing survivors, of second guessing survivors of sexual violence,” said Graf.

At Grant High School, the focus now is on students and staff get the support they need.

“[We] want to create a climate of safety for students and unfortunately this communication has disrupted that for some people in the community,” said PPS spokesman Dave Northfield.

On Monday, students had access to counseling if they wanted it.

Some students said they think the teacher may have been trying to present a different viewpoint. It’s still unclear what the intent of the letter was.

KGW has tried reaching out to the teacher involved and have not received a response.

On Friday the school plans to hold a workshop to help students and staff build relationships with marginalized groups of people.

KGW reporter Rachael Rafanelli contributed to this report.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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