By Megan Dooley
In the wake of the widely publicized incident at Oak Park and River Forest High School in which a number of female students found themselves victims of a defamatory ranking system developed by an unnamed male student, school officials are weighing options for how to proceed, and examining the cultural environment at the high school to determine what areas need work.
The list reportedly ranked a group of 50 female students based on characteristics including physical appearance and sexual experience. Katherine Foran, community relations coordinator for OPRF, could not confirm the identity of the student alleged to have written and distributed the list, first on Facebook and then in hard copies at the school. She did confirm the student's suspension, and a pending disciplinary review process that will determine consequences for the student's actions, including the possibility of long-term expulsion.
"There are always going to be some issues between adolescents, but in terms of the overall culture of our school, I think I can say with great assurance that we strive extremely hard, and I think successfully, for the most part, to create an environment that genuinely teaches, and preaches, and practices true inclusion and acceptance," said Foran.
"We've really worked hard at providing different avenues and different opportunities for what we call social emotional learning support mechanisms, things such as bullying and respect. Things of that nature," said Principal Nathaniel Rouse. But he admitted that those efforts can fall short, and incidents like the ranking list impel the administration to supplement the curriculum with sustainable lessons in respecting others.
"It's a good time for us to make this a teachable moment for students," agreed school Superintendent Steven Isoye. The question is how to make the lessons long-term, far-reaching, and global, extending to the rest of the community. "We might want to reevaluate, and look to do things better," Isoye said. "Not only to reflect on the specific nature of this incident, but...how we treat each other."
"We can always do better. We have a long way to go as a culture and society in general to make sure that we are all acting always out of a genuine respect and understanding for each other," said Foran.
The school administrators said they've been impressed with the way the victimized young women handled the incident. "Their courage has been amazing," said Rouse.
Foran said she's seen many examples of support and empowerment. "Students who are empowered come up with just really phenomenal ideas," said Foran of two female students who spoke out against their inclusion on the list on a Channel 2 newscast. In the news broadcast, high school juniors Julia Levy and Haley Rea announced their creation of a new Facebook page entitled "Unlisted," which they hope will serve as a forum for combating gender inequality.
It's those responses that point to the ways in which the high school is thriving in their approach to student relations, harassment, and prejudice, Foran said. "We can point to multiple occasions and multiple issues where students have really taken a leadership role in helping us make sure that we develop an effective message in an effective format to reach students in a way that really is going to matter and really is going to affect a lasting change," says Foran. "I think what these two girls have done, it's a little example of that."
On the other hand, this incident has highlighted problem areas that need addressing. Foran said the school will stage a systematic review of current policies in order to pinpoint vulnerable areas. "This is sort of the stimulus to saying maybe we need to develop some sort of an assembly or a forum that addresses issues of student respect, gender stereotypes, and disrespect for those who are different from each other," she said. "It's premature at this point to say what exactly that's going to look like, but we've already begun having those preliminary discussions."
"The reality is that this one million square foot building houses 3,200 students from many different backgrounds, and when those happen you do have occasional clashes," said Rouse. "We have to be prepared for that."