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What Is the Role of an All-Boys School in 2019? How the Elite Institutions Are Trying to Adapt

18 minute read

When the all-boys Regis High School in Manhattan devoted a day this spring to discussing challenges facing women today — sexual harassment, discrimination in the military, the gender pay gap, for instance — it was a first for the school, an example of an all-male institution confronting the issues raised by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements

It also reinforced to Alice Foppiani, a senior at the all-girls Marymount School of New York, just how far they had to go. “It felt like they were learning very basic information that they should have learned a while ago,” says Foppiani, 17, who participated in a panel at Regis that day with fellow Marymount students.

She and her classmates had been immersed in lessons on sexual harassment and assault prevention for years, taking required self-defense classes, heeding warnings to be vigilant about who might be following them on public transportation and considering rates of campus sexual assault as they embarked on college searches.

This wasn’t the first time the girls of Marymount had been struck by the gap between their own worldviews and experiences and those of their male peers. Earlier that school year, a meeting between Marymount students and a fledgling feminist club at Regis, HeForShe, had crystalized some differences as students discussed the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was accused by Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her while he was a student at the elite all-boys Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Md. (Kavanaugh denies the allegation.)

“It was just such a big thing for us,” says Matias Benitez, 18, a Regis senior who co-founded the school’s HeForShe club. “We were saying, we can’t let this happen again … It’s another all-boys school. It’s another prep school. It’s also Catholic, but we don’t want this to be the same.”

While Marymount students recalled the boys seeming genuinely supportive during the meeting, they also noticed the way their perspectives differed at times. According to Marymount senior Kristin O’Donoghue, 18, one boy said he believed someone’s “job shouldn’t be threatened because of something they did in high school.” Benitez says he and most students did not share that view.

The dynamic illustrates a major challenge for all-boys schools as they’re forced to consider their role in 2019. While they are hardly the only institutions confronting such issues, boys’ schools are already entirely focused on educating boys and known for graduating students who often rise to positions of power, so their leaders see both an opportunity and a responsibility to do more.

A recent survey by the International Boys’ Schools Coalition found that boys’ school leaders think the most important challenge facing their schools today is “healthy concepts of masculinity and relationships.” Asked about the challenges boys’ schools will face over the next five years, a plurality of respondents said “gender issues.”

“I would be less than honest to say it has not added a new complexity, a new challenge,” says Regis High School principal Rev. Anthony Andreassi, referring to the discussions of toxic masculinity and gender equality playing out across the country. “It’s important that we address this.“

In a January speech to parents, Jason Robinson, the headmaster of St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., identified this as an “existential moment” for boys’ schools.

I would be less than honest to say it has not added a new complexity, a new challenge.

“I’m very mindful of the fact, as a boys’ school leader, that as we seek to convince families in the future to send their sons to us, they will rightfully ask me the question, ‘Why should I send my son to a boys’ school rather than a co-ed school? Please assure me that a boys’ school will not be an incubator of male privilege and entitlement and misogyny,’” Robinson says. “And I think we’ve got to have really thoughtful, well-developed answers to those questions.”

There were about 780 private all-boys schools in the U.S. during the 2017-18 school year, according to the most recent numbers available from the Department of Education, and about 650 private all-girls schools. Many boys’ schools trace their roots to religious orders that sought to recruit and train young men, says Kirstin Pesola McEachern, a former boys’ school teacher who wrote her 2014 dissertation on gender issues at an all-boys Catholic school in the Northeast. That raises a question, she wrote, about “why single-sex education makes sense in today’s world.”

Research has shown that all-boys schools can be more sexist environments than all-girls schools or co-ed schools, and that students at boys’ schools display more traditional forms of masculinity and tend to show more respect to male than female teachers. “What we know in practice is that when you segregate people, they tend to develop stereotypical views of their own group and the excluded group,” says Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Separation Solution?: Single-Sex Education and the New Politics of Gender Equality. But proponents of single-sex schools say they bring out the best in their students, encouraging boys to be vulnerable and to build deeper relationships, while empowering girls to speak up in class and step into leadership roles that might be dominated by boys in a co-ed school.

Benitez, the Regis senior, says some of his classmates seem more willing to start talking about feminism and gender issues in the comfort of an all-male space.

“There’s a communal sense that we don’t talk about this as much as a girls’ school would, or a co-ed school even,” he says, adding that boys and men, “as the people who benefit from [patriarchy], are the ones who really do need to hear about feminism and hear of an experience outside their own.”

But too often, critics say, advice for boys still leans toward treating women as objects in need of protection rather than equals deserving of respect. On the day devoted to women’s issues at Regis, a speaker who was lecturing about the legal definition of rape and consent, using examples of sexual assault at high school and college parties, encouraged the boys to remember, “That is somebody’s sister, that’s somebody’s closest friend, that’s somebody’s cousin, that’s somebody’s cherished daughter.” To the Marymount students, who thought the day’s conversations were a good start, it was still an example of how not to teach gender equality.

“We felt that she should have just said, ‘Think of her as a person that you wouldn’t defile and treat like this,’” says O’Donoghue.

While some single-sex schools are public, scrutiny of boys’ schools tends to focus on those that are private and cater largely to students from wealthy families, with common critiques being that they enable male privilege and a “boys will be boys” mentality. (Regis is a private school, but it is tuition-free thanks to an endowment and alumni donations.)

Adam Howard, an education professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who studies elite schooling and affluent youth, says even as boys’ schools engage in more conversations about privilege, sexism and social justice — often in more progressive parts of the country where the demand for that kind of school culture is greater — they have not fundamentally changed. “The core function of elite schools is to make and remake elites,” he says.

In August 2018, for the first time in history, the American Psychological Association (APA) put out a set of guidelines for treating men and boys, writing that “traditional masculinity ideology” — often characterized by “anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence” — can be harmful to boys and men.

While the process of writing the guidelines began 14 years ago — similar guidelines have been introduced for girls and women, and LGBTQ people in the past — they were released into a world fraught with debate about changing gender roles, and the backlash was swift. Psychoanalyst Erica Komisar said the guidelines ignore biology and “demonize masculinity.” On Fox News, American Enterprise Institute scholar Christina Hoff Sommers accused the APA of “treating masculinity as a pathology in need of a cure.” And researchers who worked on the guidelines were inundated with hate mail.

“We can kind of argue about terms,” says Matt Englar-Carlson, one of the authors of the guidelines and a co-director of the Center for Boys and Men at California State University, Fullerton. “But the reality is that men and boys in American society are not doing that well.”

Though the suicide rate is on the rise for all Americans, it’s higher for men than women. Boys are more likely than girls to drop out of high school, and women outpace men in earning advanced degrees. And while the percentage of men participating in the workforce has declined significantly since the 1960s, due in part to technological advancements and declining demand for middle-skill workers, the opposite has been true for women. The female labor force participation has also rebounded more strongly since the recession. In addition, research has shown that stereotypical expectations of masculinity, including that boys hide their emotions or exhibit dominance, can make them less likely to seek help.

Experts also say it’s hard to combat bullying and toxic masculinity when the President of the United States boasts about grabbing women “by the pussy” or responds to a protester by saying he’d “like to punch him in the face.” When the accusations against Kavanaugh surfaced last year, Trump warned that “it’s a very scary time for young men in America.”

An institution that may look, on the surface, to be rather traditional may be ideally positioned to meet the great progressive questions and the great sort of progressive vision for the future we want for both our sons and daughters.

“The way [Trump] speaks and bullies and denigrates people, like you’d expect 9- and 10-year-olds to do,” says Thomas Keith, an adjunct professor of philosophy and gender studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, who directed the documentary The Bro Code: How Contemporary Culture Creates Sexist Men, “as long as there are people that think that’s a positive trait, it’s going to be difficult to really see a more widespread reversal of what we’re calling bro culture.”

These are challenges that exist in co-ed schools as well, but ideally, says Robinson, the headmaster of St. Albans, boys’ schools provide an affirming environment for boys to “interrogate unhealthy notions of masculinity” and discuss anxieties and frustrations without feeling self-conscious. “Counterintuitively, an institution that may look, on the surface, to be rather traditional may be ideally positioned to meet the great progressive questions and the great sort of progressive vision for the future we want for both our sons and daughters,” he says.

That’s why Michael Reichert, a psychologist who leads the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives at the University of Pennsylvania, developed a program 25 years ago at the all-boys Haverford School outside Philadelphia to help boys learn to express their emotions. Now for an hour and a half every other week, about 50 boys gather to share pizza and their feelings. They dissect their emotions on topics ranging from sex and porn to their relationships with parents, girls and each other. Reichert says it’s not uncommon for boys to cry, and they often shake his hand and thank him when they leave.

Pearse Glavin, 18, is a regular. Each session, he says, leaves him with “a tangible feeling in my stomach that an emotional burden has been released.”

“I think that it’s important for schools to have this, boys’ schools especially, because the problems that are going on in the world — especially in our country with consent and harassment —are really rooted in the stereotype that men should bottle up their feelings,” Glavin says.

In one study, Reichert found that boys who spent more time in the program developed deeper friendships and greater self-awareness than those who did not. While boys said they were “constrained by the school’s restrictive norms for masculinity,” according to Reichert’s study, they saw peer counseling as “an oasis of opportunity amidst a threatening and even punishing social world.”

Since 2014, the school has also offered a human relationships seminar that covers race and implicit bias, sex and consent, healthy relationships, feminism and manhood. “Schools are becoming these spaces that are really thinking about emotional intelligence and giving kids not just a rulebook, but a play space to practice how to navigate this,” says Brendon Jobs, the school’s director of diversity and inclusion, who teaches the seminar. “We don’t have the answers for exactly how to do it, but we can set up scenarios and offer a reflective space to do the work.”

But many students and alumni of boys’ schools, and their girls’ school peers, are pushing for more lasting change.

In early 2018, Kelsey Caine posted an open letter on Facebook to a boy she said had assaulted her in 2010, when she was a senior at St. Agnes Academy in Houston, an all-girls school, and he was attending the all-boys Strake Jesuit College Preparatory next door. In the post, Caine said she had been drinking at a friend’s house, fallen asleep and woken up to find the Strake Jesuit student kissing her and groping her breasts. When others in the house heard her yelling and rushed into the room, the boy denied Caine’s allegations, and everyone believed him. “All boys schools have an opportunity and responsibility to educate hundreds of thousands of young men about sexual assault,” Caine wrote in her Facebook post.

To Caine’s surprise, her attacker contacted her and apologized, acknowledging what he had done years before. “When you appropriately called what I did to you sexual assault, it hit me like a sack of bricks,” he told her. In April 2018, the two met with administrators at Strake Jesuit to advocate for incorporating sexual assault prevention into the curriculum. They delivered a petition signed by nearly 3,000 people, along with letters from recent alumni who supported it, and a 28-page outline Caine had written as a guide for a potential curriculum.

“Please give freshmen, sophomores and juniors and seniors this information. I’m telling you that that is something you have an obligation to do,” her attacker told administrators, according to an audio recording of the meeting shared with TIME.

Administrators pointed to programs already in place at the school and said they were considering new measures. “I think we all are very aware that it is an issue, and it is something that we don’t want to sweep under the rug,” a Strake Jesuit counselor said during the meeting.

“I never said we couldn’t do more,” an assistant principal said. “That’s what we talk about all the time — how we can do this better.”

Caine, now 28, says she hasn’t heard from Strake Jesuit leaders since then about the curriculum she proposed or about changes they are making to sexual assault education at the school.

But a school spokesperson told TIME that it launched “Coaching Boys Into Men” for athletes, “a mentorship program that helps students process their relationships with a healthy vision of their own masculinity” in the summer of 2018 and is incorporating a healthy-relationships program into its counseling curriculum for the first time this school year. It will cover “contemporary issues in gender relations, sexual violence, and relationship safety, including what the Church calls ‘sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women.’”

Robinson took the job at St. Albans in July 2018, three years after the school had drawn criticism for a 2015 yearbook that contained sexist and misogynistic language, echoing problems with Georgetown Prep’s yearbook from 1983. (Georgetown Prep declined to comment for this story, referring TIME to a letter from President Rev. James Van Dyke last September, in which he said it was “tough to see the caricature that we have been painted with by some” and that the school would “continue to evaluate our school culture.”) In a separate incident, students at the all-girls National Cathedral School created a Google Doc in 2014 that turned into a catalogue “of unwanted sexual advances at parties, of inappropriate sexual comments” and drew “inappropriate” responses from St. Albans boys on social media, according to letters both schools sent to parents at the time.

Robinson called the yearbook and Google Doc controversies “really, really unfortunate episodes,” and said they fueled his decision to speak to students, families and alumni about issues of privilege and sexism. “That means acknowledging — in a very open, transparent way — moments in our past where we have not lived up to our mission and our moral commitments,” he says.

Last fall, during the Kavanaugh hearings, a few St. Albans seniors wrote a column calling on their peers to address the problematic ways they had treated girls in the past. “Our time at St. Albans will put us in positions of power, big and small, throughout our lives,” they wrote. “And if in the future or in the present, we do not use that power for good, St. Albans will not have succeeded as an institution.” Working with girls from the National Cathedral School, they started a group on consent and respectful relationships that met throughout the school year. Days before they graduated, they urged Robinson to create more co-ed programs so St. Albans students could develop better relationships with their female peers — something Robinson says he is now working on.

I want people who meet our students to say, ‘That is not at all what I would have expected of a boys’ school graduate.’

St. Albans is one of five schools — and the only all-boys school — that took part in a pilot program about consent and sexual relationships run by the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia this spring. The school also participated in a survey on “responsible sexual citizenship” at boys’ schools, conducted by a researcher at McGill University in partnership with the International Boys’ Schools Coalition, and plans to adapt its sex ed curriculum accordingly when the results are released next year.

“I’ve often said to our boys this year that I want St. Albans to be a stereotype-confounding school,” Robinson says. “I want people who meet our students to say, ‘That is not at all what I would have expected of a boys’ school graduate.’”

In a debrief at Regis at the end of the day addressing women’s issues this spring, a group of students gathered in a classroom to reflect on what they had learned. One boy commented on how it was a rare opportunity to hear from “the other side.” (“The other side?” his teacher, a woman, joked. “Of the war?”)

Another suggested that he and fellow upperclassmen try to set a better example for freshmen by calling out sexist language they overhear or trying to change bad behavior at school dances. One student suggested Regis go co-ed.

It was the beginning of a conversation that school leaders hope will continue throughout the year. Next spring, Regis will devote a day to the theme of examining masculinity, holding events and inviting speakers to talk about the topic leading up to that day.

The HeForShe student leaders say their discussions in the coming year will cover toxic masculinity and the effects of the #MeToo movement. They kicked off the club’s meetings last month by discussing sexism in politics and the way female candidates are often dismissed as “shrill.”

“There’s still so much more to do,” Benitez says. “It’s going to be an effort that continues until — forever, really.”

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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com