A twisted normality

31st August 2012 at 01:00

In challenging educational environments, it is essential to constantly police what passes as "normal". The benchmark of what is acceptable must at least resemble that which is upheld by law. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

Susan was a newly qualified teacher at a large FE college. A few months in, she was teaching a group of male students in a classroom in an isolated part of the college. One of the students became disruptive and Susan told him his behaviour was unacceptable. Before she could continue with the disciplinary process, he squared up to her and described the many ways he would rape her until she was dead, then left the classroom. If this event had taken place anywhere else bar a classroom setting, Susan would have dialed 999.

The other students responded with a mix of amusement and outrage. Susan would not allow them to see her fear: summoning all her resilience, she continued with the session. After the students left the room she began to shake. She pushed a desk against the door to secure herself, then vomited: partially due to shock, partially due to her early pregnancy.

Unsure how to deal with the incident, she spoke to her temporary manager, who suggested that she consult the most senior staff member on the campus. This person told her that the student had a learning difficulty, but was so skilled in his vocation that he would no doubt win awards for the college. It was suggested that Susan should work harder on behaviour management strategies, to try to offer the student a more supportive environment. No official disciplinary action should be sought.

After a few months of regular accounts from the student of how she would die during acts of extreme sexual violence, Susan found her limit. She learned that the student had knowledge of her whereabouts outside college. The thought of putting her children at risk was beyond what she could cope with. She went back to management and was told to change her daily routine "just in case". By this point she had miscarried, and though she didn't blame the stress of the incidents, it didn't help.

The student was fast-tracked through the course, but was re-enrolled at the college 18 months later. Upon hearing this, Susan - stronger, wiser and now unwilling to accept grossly misogynistic mismanagement - left the building. She bypassed hierarchy and went to the top. There were important meetings with sympathetic head-tilting, but nothing changed to improve either safety or communications. When she realised this, Susan left the building permanently. It wouldn't happen again, at least not to her. She refused to accept that it was "normal".

Sarah Simons works in a large FE college in Mansfield.

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