FHS dress code fight sees 'complete shift,' young feminists say
Fredericton High School administration, feminists working together to create new sexual assault policy
Three months after an angry protest by young feminist activists at Fredericton High School led to their suspensions, the female students say there’s been a “complete shift” in attitude among administrators.
They’re now working together to tackle sexual assault and other issues at the 1,900-student high school.
This week David McTimoney, the superintendent of the Anglophone West School District, confirmed the students will have a role in drafting a district-wide policy on sexual assault — one of their key demands during November’s protest.
“It will be a collaborative effort that will see student and staff input as well as input from experts in the field,” McTimoney says.
“A good news story.”
The story didn’t look that good last November, when about 25 young women walked out of classes to protest the school’s dress code and to demand a harassment policy.
There was a breakthrough.- Emilia Deil, student
It was bitterly cold outside and the protest turned angry when the students weren’t able to go back inside afterwards because of the security locks on the school doors. One student alleged she was shoved by the police officer normally posted at the school.
Students who got into the school and chanted around the office of principal Shane Thomas were later suspended for three days and lost their extracurricular activities for the remainder of the school year.
But after McTimoney brought in a district staffer, Judy Piers-Kavanagh, to attend meetings between the activists and school officials, things cooled down.
Thomas, who the students had seen as intransigent, was more open to hearing their concerns, they say.
"There was a breakthrough,” says Emilia Deil, Grade 12 student.
“Him just even listening to us and encouraging us and telling us that he wanted to work with us and work through this, and understand — you could tell he genuinely cared at that point and genuinely wanted to do something about the issue, rather than just dismiss it."
Thomas says he hasn’t actually changed his approach, but he has learned from his meetings with the students, including one where they described their own experiences with sexual harassment.
“I will say some of the stories surprised me,” he says.
“By sharing some of those experiences, it certainly is a learning curve for those of us on the other side of the table. Because you don't know what all of the students are going through.”
A simmering debate about dress codes
The protest began over the school dress code, which requires students to wear “modest” clothes — a phrase that McTimoney admits can be interpreted differently by different teachers.
"It is basically the idea that we use language, or imagery, or we discuss rape or sexual assault in a way that makes it, `Meh, that's the way things are. That's just the way things are and people have to deal with it,'” says Jennifer Gorham of the Fredericton Sexual Assault Crisis Centre. “And it's permissive."
The dress code issue had been simmering at FHS for a couple of years.
Sorcha Beirne, a Grade 12 student who helped organize last fall’s protest, says she was among several students taken to task for their clothing.
A vice-principal told her that a sheer shirt she was wearing was too revealing.
“And she had no interest in listening to me, so she sent to me the principal and he had no interest in listening to me,” she says.
Thomas says the dress code was drafted with the input of a feminist club based at FHS. That group has taken a more moderate approach, working with administrators.
"If you really are concerned about an issue, you should be joining that particular group that has a voice directly with the office or through the teachers,” he says.
“If you're not part of a group, I don't know what your ideas are."
Beirne and Deil felt going through official channels wasn’t effective and decided to take a more radical approach with their city-wide group, the Fredericton Young Feminists.
"I'm definitely more into radical activism. I like protests and I think being loud and aggressive in our tactics is the way we're going to see change,” Beirne says.
The group was also buoyed by its protests for abortion rights at the New Brunswick legislature last year, which they felt succeeded in forcing the issue onto the political agenda.
“We had politicians behind us on these issues we were bringing forward,” Deil says.
“We could see people cared about feminist issues, so it made it easier going into bringing up another issue.”
From protest to persuasion
Last November, the group posted a video to a petition website that demanded the repeal of the dress code.
"A student at my school complained about sexual harassment,” Deil said, “and she was told she shouldn't be wearing a low-cut shirt.”
They organized the walk-out for the following Friday. A few students from outside FHS joined the small group of protesters outside the school, where they chanted demands for ending the dress code.
Some members of the more moderate school-approved feminist group were there too, including Julia Fournier, Grade 9 student.
"A lot of people had never seen a protest before so they didn't know what was going on,” Fournier says.
“They were shocked by that. But I didn't see anything wrong happening. Like I don't think we were out of line."
Deil says she was nervous about joining the walk-out but decided she had to do it.
“I was told by teachers that I have a lot of respect for, that this was a bad decision and there were different ways of going about it,” she says.
But, Deil says, the students had tried talking without success.
In the morning I saw young people who were confused and hurt and trying to understand why they were being punished. They were terribly hurt.- Judy Piers-Kavanagh
Thomas, the principal of FHS for five years and an administrator for 17, says it was his first student walk-out.
“In my years in my administrator that is not something that has occurred and it's not something we train for,” he says.
The students learned of their suspensions the following week. Many of their parents contacted the school to complain that the ban on extracurricular activities for the rest of the school year went too far.
By then, superintendent McTimoney was already trying to calm the situation.
He asked Judy Piers-Kavanagh, an Oromocto teacher who was filling in at the district office for six months, to step in.
She held a five-hour meeting with the suspended students.
"In the morning I saw young people who were confused and hurt and trying to understand why they were being punished. They were terribly hurt,” she says.
“And by the afternoon I saw young people who were wanting to sit down with administration and have a conversation and they had all kinds of recommendations about what the school could do to improve some things as they saw it."
Piers-Kavanagh has a background in gender studies and she earned the trust of both the activists and the administrators at a series of meetings.
Beirne echoed her support for Piers-Kavanagh.
“The fact she was sitting there on the other side of the desk,” Beirne says, “understanding where we were coming from, kind of helped the other people sitting on that side of the desk at least listen.”
As the meetings continued and the climate improved, the school’s principal rescinded the ban on the activists’ extracurricular activities.
"The things that they were asking us to do, we knew we were going to be able to do,” Thomas says.
“And so if they're coming to the table willing to participate and generate good ideas and work with us to make our school a better place, there's absolutely no need to have those consequences in place."
The discussion continues
The mood has improved at FHS, with the decision to work on a district-wide sexual assault policy the most concrete example of the new atmosphere.
"I'm pretty pleased with what's going on,” says Emilia Deil.
“Just the fact that we had meetings with the administration was amazing to me. They definitely have had just like a complete shift in point of view."
Thomas says the conversations with the students “is a powerful way to move forward as a school. And having that co-operation and collegiality with these young people is a wonderful opportunity for us and for them.”
Still, the two sides aren’t in complete agreement about everything.
“There's not an overwhelming cry to abolish the dress code,” he said.
“But we can see here the dress code was the catalyst for a larger conversation.”
There’s so much goodwill that no one wants to reopen the argument too much — but it’s clear there are very different views of whether the November protest was necessary.
“There's a lot of good going on now as a result of what has happened, but I would say had the approach been different, the same good could have resulted,” McTimoney says.
“Had that taken a different route, we could have reached the same conclusions without those bumps along the way.”
The students disagree.
“The school district wasn't going to listen our concerns until we did something big, until they had to listen,” Beirne says.
As long as we're working with the students and they're working with us, I have confidence that our students will help us and we'll be able to help them.- Shane Thomas, FHS principal
“We wouldn't have got meetings with the district if we hadn't had a protest, if we hadn't gone to the media.”
Julia Fournier, of the more moderate school-based feminist club, says “the walkout turned out to be more effective. But I still respect all the opinions of the members of the FHS feminist club and I see both points of view.”
And Beirne acknowledges she’s the most skeptical among members of the Fredericton Young Feminists about whether all the talk will lead to real change.
“I think it's very easy to assume that everyone has your best interests at heart, and the school really wants to do what's best for its students,” she says.
“I think from their past behaviour it's obvious they like to sweep things under the rug or push things aside."
Thomas acknowledges that “it takes a while for all this to occur” but says he believes FHS will be successful.
“As long as we're working with the students and they're working with us, I have confidence that our students will help us and we'll be able to help them.”