By Xanthe Scharff
September 28, 2018
IDEAS

Scharff is cofounder and executive director of The Fuller Project, a media organization that reports on women.

As Thursday’s Senate hearing into Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when in high school at Georgetown Preparatory School was about to get underway, protestors and Kavanaugh supporters assembled in the Hart Senate Building atrium. A walkway and a thin line of police separated the protestors—many of whom were muzzled by the black duct-tape they strapped across their mouths—from about 30 women who called themselves, “Women for Kavanaugh.” Just before the hearing, the women from that group turned to the cameras, flashing a “V for Victory” with their fingers. The group’s smiling leader, prominent conservative activist Penny Young Nance stood inches above other women in stilettos. One protestor yelled to them, “I don’t want to wish bad things on you, I just hope you are never sexually assaulted.”

Among the protestors on Thursday were alumnae from The Holton Arms School in Bethesda Maryland—an all girls private school and Ford’s alma mater. For many of them, Dr. Ford’s testimony hit a personal and familiar vein. Alumnae tightly locked arms, forming a circle in the Hart Senate Building Thursday morning. The haunting harmony of their school hymn, sung in unison by the women, floated up the atrium to Senators’ office doors.

At Holton, both students and the administration have been vocal in their response to the Senate hearings. Sarah Burghess, Holton Arms class of ’05, told me that over a thousand alumnae signed a letter to support Ford, posted on a webpage they created. The student body has reportedly been “on fire” for the past week debating the issue, according to an article in Vanity Fair in which seven additional alumnae talk about their experiences being sexually assaulted while in school. The Bethesda Patch, a local news site, reported that the school would allow some students to attend the hearings.

More broadly, the Senate hearing has prompted disturbing memories to resurface among survivors and alumni of other private sister and brother schools to Georgetown Prep and Holton Arms. I talked to an alum from St. Albans School, one of the most prominent single-sex school in the Greater Washington D.C. area, where former Vice President Al Gore’s son once attended along with other notable families. St Albans, along with other elite schools in the area, has been mentioned in some of the personal testimonies that emerged in the news since Ford’s accusations were made public, showing that some alumni from this family of schools share similar memories.

“They [predatory kids] knew exactly how to behave in front of the priest and the headmaster,” says Lex Paulson, who graduated in 1998 from St. Albans. Speaking by phone from his apartment in Paris, he said “the surety that they wouldn’t be held accountable, it fed their smugness when tormenting vulnerable kids.” Now a well-respected professor at the Sciences Po in Paris, Paulson was thrown into lockers and bullied while in middle and high school.

Others at Hart on Thursday drew on radically different prep school experiences, and were out to show support from Judge Kavanaugh. “I find it hard to believe that in a community like that [Georgetown Prep], where people value their reputations, that this could happen and people wouldn’t know about it,” says Jaime Ballew, a young Senate staffer and part of the “Women for Kavanaugh” group. Referring back to her time at religious prep school in rural Virginia, where everyone knew each other from church and the country club, she says: “Georgetown Prep School is Ivy League-mapped. Parents are spending thousands of dollars on their children’s education. How would they not notice changes in their behavior?”

Ballew’s support for Kavanaugh stems from her belief that he will follow the constitution in his rulings, she said. A number of college students from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia said that Kavanaugh should be considered innocent until proven guilty and worried about the impact of #MeToo on falsely accused men. Jerry Falwell Jr., who is President of that evangelical university and is close to President Donald Trump, announced that up to 300 students could ride in University buses up to DC to support Kavanaugh.

Standing in a group of several dozen, three students from Liberty University stood against the wall in the Hart lobby. Ben Rakes, a reserved 18-year-old in an Adidas sweatshirt, told me, “#MeToo has been good for women, it’s good for them to come out. But politicizing it can be like the boy who cried wolf, like the girl who cried rape…then it’s just another account.” Andrew Einmo, a 19-year-old also from Liberty said, “We think rape is serious and can’t be taken lightly. We want to see solid proof…. like cameras, detectives searching the room.” Jacob Glewen, 19, said his views were informed by hearing that a female friend told him she made a false accusation.

Across the hallway, a young woman gripped her cell phone, which was streaming Ford’s opening statement. She wept inconsolably, holding onto another young woman’s hand; several older women placed their arms on her shoulders and made a small barricade around her with their bodies.

Hundreds of protesters rally in the Hart Senate Office Building while demonstrating against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh on Capitol Hill September 24, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

There were many survivors protesting in the Senate building yesterday. Sexual abuse, bullying, and harassment are hardly limited to the world of D.C. private schools like the ones that Kavanaugh and Ford attended. Yet the power and the privilege associated with these schools is unusual, and single sex education presents its own expectations and challenges.

“You are being told you are the center of the world, bred for excellence,” says Paulson, who sees that message as mixing toxically with adolescents’ still-unformed ideas of right and wrong. Paulson does not blame his teachers for the violence he suffered, calling them, “gentle and kind.” He says the school didn’t have the “mechanisms” to deal with students behavior—behavior that was often artfully hidden from them.

At my alma mater, National Cathedral School (NCS), a private all girls’ school that is the sister school to St. Albans and routinely competed in sports with Holton Arms, our teachers—aware of our privilege—drilled into us, “You can achieve anything you want.” It was an ambitious, overtly feminist institution. Yet the silence about the sexism we would face in our adult lives, the assault that is so prevalent on campuses, and the quotidian objectification of our bodies, was deafening. Girls faced real dangers even while in high school. Alexandra Lescaze, NCS class of ’88 writes in Slate about her memories of drunken, unsupervised parties and a “line up,” where boys lined up to have sex with or rape an intoxicated girl.

A letter signed by 1,400 women and men from D.C. and Maryland area schools was delivered to Senators Durbin and Duckworth just before the hearing in support of Ford, saying, “We are women and men who grew up in the same world as both you [Ford] and Brett Kavanaugh – in Chevy Chase, Bethesda, and Northwest DC. We attended the same elite private schools, country clubs, and churches. And we believe you. Each one of us heard your story and not one of us was surprised. These are the stories of our lives and our friends’ lives…”

Ford graduated many years ago, as did I (’98). Hopefully things are changing in schools across the country with the advent of #MeToo and the imperative to recognize women and girl’s lived experiences. Holton Arms has embraced in a number of ways the need to confront and address the issues at hand—the swift and large-scale response from alumni to Ford’s testimony likely a factor in the school’s response.

Both NCS and St. Albans rushed to respond to my calls yesterday, acknowledging students’ and parents’ potential need to engage around these issues. Molly Meinhardt, St. Alban’s director of communications, emailed saying, “The head of school tomorrow will be meeting with students to review the events of today and related news reports. We’re drafting a letter to our parents and alumni about these issues and the school’s curriculum, updated in recent years, related to sexuality, assault, substance abuse, consent, healthy relationships, and empathy…”

The statement I received from the Head of School at NCS, Kathleen O’Neill Jamieson, reads, “Today, many of our homerooms took the opportunity to discuss the hearings and provide some context about what brought the Senate to this point. We also devoted one space in our school to a day-long broadcast of the hearings, and several dozen girls took the opportunity to watch at least some of the testimony.” Her statement goes on to say in some detail that she will be discussing the school’s health and wellness curriculum with parents.

Neither Georgetown Prep nor Landon responded to my request for comment by the time of publishing. Georgetown Prep’s statements on this issue, reported in The Hill, has been to say that their school is being disparaged. Landon alumni have written a letter saying they support Ford and are committed to building a world without sexual assault, and in the Washington Post, Landon graduate Gregory Jaffe calls for a better accounting of the rape culture that existed years ago.

For many in Hart, and for many alumni of school’s like Kavanaugh’s and Ford’s, the hearings bring up memories long stored away, and spark questions about how schools best protect students. “This is a great moment for everyone to reflect on and understand that we have survivors in our community, in our schools, and in other places,” say Burghess.

Near her, Linda Sarsour of The Women’s March stood with the other organizers of the movement. Asked what she’s learned since the first march in January 2016, she told me: “Women have power. If we let them lead, they will lead us out.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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