Together, we can help victims of harassment to find their voice

21st September 2018 at 00:00
One teacher’s brave account of being subjected to sexual bullying shows that school leaders and staff must confront this problem in the workplace, says former police chief Graham Goulden

A few weeks ago, I read a brave and powerful Tes Scotland article written by a friend and colleague, John Naples-Campbell. I’ve known John for a few years now, having first met him when delivering violence-prevention training in Glasgow. From the minute we met, I connected with him. I share many of his values in life. I also share his dedication to his profession – for him, it is teaching; for me, it is enforcement. While our roles may seem a world apart, both these professions have one thing in common: relationships.

In his article (“A message to my sexual harasser: your time is up”, 3 August, see bit.ly/JohnNaples-Campbell), John openly disclosed incidences of harassment that he had suffered at the hands of another teacher. Always a professional, John wrote the article not to identify the abuser but to shine a light on an issue that is blighting many workplaces across Scotland and the globe.

At a time when allegations of abuse and sexual harassment against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and others are in the spotlight, John’s disclosure has helped to keep this story very much alive and presented us all with an uncomfortable reality. A reality where sexual harassment and abuse are happening to our friends and colleagues – in short, to people we care about.

As a former police officer and now a leadership and violence-prevention trainer, I wanted to respond to John’s piece in a way that encourages school leaders and teachers to see themselves as a potential solution to these issues. The first point I must make is that harassment and abuse can happen to anyone; indeed, they can also be committed by anyone. Those who commit these forms of abuse often started their journey long before anyone of us met them. It’s difficult to acknowledge, but it’s clear that these abusers feel empowered by society’s inaction.

Deeply damaging in the workplace

Whether they are male or female, the impact on the individual targeted can be deeply damaging, both in the short and long term. The impact on the workplace is also clear: increased absenteeism, and decreased productivity and staff retention. While John has demonstrated the resilience and courage to discuss his incident, many others don’t.

Those involved in school leadership have a clear role in helping to create safe and supportive spaces within which Scotland’s many wonderful teachers can do their job: teach. Think about it, if a school pupil doesn’t feel safe, they won’t learn. It’s the same for teachers. If they feel safe in their workplace and in their workplace relationships, they will perform. If not, the outcomes are clear.

School leaders should take these issues seriously, and create opportunities for staff to discuss them. In a way, I’m saying that we need to create a learning environment within a learning environment.

A policy that communicates measures to tackle abuse and sexual harassment, while important, will not on its own show the leadership that is needed. Schools would benefit greatly from starting conversations on these subjects. That way, staff can see that they are not alone in their disgust and discomfort around these issues. Unless such opportunities are created, people will remain silent.

Discussions on these subjects will start to break down the “diffusion of responsibility” that we know exists in groups, and help people to understand why some remain silent: this is known as the “bystander effect”. Discussion will provide much-needed reassurance that an individual is not alone in their feelings, and could perhaps inspire someone to show the responsibility to counter the bystander effect.

As a leader, it is vital that you communicate your stance on these issues. By doing so, you become an ally of those who have been impacted. Furthermore, you empower those who witness abuse to act.

I’m sure John has started a conversation within the teaching world. It is, therefore, important to let staff know what they can do to support colleagues, and to make it clear that certain behaviours are unacceptable. When it comes to abuse and violence, we are all potential leaders with a role to prevent incidents. So, what can we all do?

Communicate your feelings on the subject – John’s story is a good start. Talk to others about it. Not only will you communicate that you are a potential ally, you will most likely find some reassurance that others share your feelings. Try it. You may be surprised by how many people agree with you.

Where you suspect that a friend or work colleague is a victim of abuse, support them. Don’t be a bystander, be a friend. Your job isn’t to fix the issue but to acknowledge a victim’s experiences and make sure they know that it’s not their fault. Your intervention may appear small, but your validation will mean a lot – believe me on that one.

When you hear colleagues or others acting in a way that is abusive to others, say something. This can be hard and it will take courage, but it’s the necessary ingredient to help solve these issues. If you don’t feel comfortable dealing with this yourself, talk with some allies who can help.

Self-inspection is good for the soul. At some time in our lives, many of us will have said things, been party to comments or even made sexual comments about other men or women. Many of us will also have been silent when harassment or abuse has taken place. You are not to blame for the abuse. But with new and improved approaches, stepping up will become easier. Harassment and abuse are wrong. No one deserves to be a victim. We all have the capacity to be that friend or colleague we would want if it was us being victimised. It’s time for us all to support colleagues like John, and the many others who often struggle to get through their day.

Graham Goulden is a former chief police inspector with the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. For many years he has been developing violence-prevention and relationship programmes in Scottish secondary schools. For more information, visit grahamgoulden.com

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