Shauna Hunt made history and now she's made history class too.
Grade 10 students in Karen Dick's class were not expecting to watch – in school – the by-now infamous footage of Hunt, a CityNews television reporter in Toronto, as she retaliated against soccer fans giddy that she'd been hit by a vulgar sexual slur, labelled "FHRITP" for short.
But Dick, a teacher at Hamilton's Westdale Secondary School, decided the story was relevant for her history students. The class was discussing Canadian women entering the work force in the 1950s and '60s, and the sexual harassment they faced in the workplace.
She made a reference to the television show Mad Men, then cued-up the CityNews clip: "I said to the kids, 'Of course, nothing like that happens today.' And they're all nodding and going, 'We've come a long way.' I said, 'Oh really?' And then I hit play."
Canadian teachers are using the FHRITP debacle as a teachable moment about modern-day misogyny and sexual harassment. High school teachers have been screening the mortifying footage in classrooms and weaving the cautionary tale into many different disciplines – history, law, English and religion among them. They've also been airing testimonial videos of female journalists describing the emotional impact of having obscenities hurled at them on the job, sometimes 10 times a day.
An unsettling element in this story is that journalists have described high-school and elementary-school boys as young as 9 hollering this slur from schoolyards. Kids will be kids, sure, but this makes what children used to do to unsuspecting on-air TV reporters (mouthing "Hi Mom!" and waving) seem downright quaint. Children push boundaries, but the darker elements at play must be challenged, from the sexual violation of women to humiliating them on the job. It's a troubling artifact of sexism at an early age, and some educators are seizing the learning opportunity.
English teacher David Harvey introduced the story to his Grade 10 class at Orangeville District Secondary School, northwest of Toronto, on Tuesday. The theme was "the power of words."
"These words that you're hurling out because you think it's funny or you want attention or because someone dared you, there is a recipient. There is someone at the other end and they have feelings," said Harvey, describing the lesson.
He showed his class Hunt's original footage as well as a subsequent Metro Morning interview with CBC-TV reporter Shannon Martin. After several groups of boys screeched the vile statement at her recently, Martin filmed them sauntering into their school. She delivered the footage to the boys' principal, who quickly alerted their parents – some serious sit-downs were had. It was a heartening (if rare) instance of nipping misogyny in the bud.
"When the real world outside and what you're teaching come together, it's magic and you grab it," said Harvey of teachable moments such as this one. His English lesson expanded to issues of respect, gender and, for the boys in the class, "that as young men, they can never put women in a position of feeling scared or vulnerable with their words."
A healthy discussion ensued, and having boys hear first-hand what their female classmates have experienced had an effect. "When you can make that conversation happen organically, you do see boys go, 'Hmmm, maybe they're not so empty, these words that we throw around,'" he said. "For me that's really what I'm looking for – to challenge their thinking."
Teachers Julia Cale and Marianne Braca worked the story into their religion classes at St. Anne's Catholic Secondary School in Clinton, Ont., last week. Braca said her Grade 12 boys laughed when she brought up the topic and were surprised she was offended. After a lengthy conversation about the abusive practice, they got it. For her male-dominated Grade 9 class of 30, Cale had a lesson planned about the concept of conscience when one student brought up the CityNews story. Together, they slowly dismantled the notion that it is even remotely funny.
The teachers said they believe boys take up the prank because they're young, impulsive, eager to fit in and prone to group-think and imitating what they see online. "If we want to solve these issues, we have to allow things to be put on the table," Cale said. "You're changing behaviour for life, and you never know what impact it'll have on someone else in that person's life."
Beyond teaching kids that sexism isn't funny, these are potent, on-the-ground lessons in empathy – that regardless of whether words are premeditated or blurted out, there is a real impact on human beings who are chronically harassed. When CBC reporter Martin describes on camera wanting to "curl up" in herself from the sheer mortification of being sexually taunted at least once weekly on the job, there's a real-world immediacy to it that resonates with young people, these teachers have found.
Outside the classroom, educators are tackling everyday sexism through athletics. White Ribbon, the men's organization promoting gender equality, has teamed up with the Toronto Argonauts for a high school initiative called "Huddle Up and Make the Call." Select Argos players tell stories at school assemblies, from growing up in violent families to reflecting on the toxic effects of machismo in their own lives.
"It's interesting for kids to hear from an unexpected place and from people they look up to," says White Ribbon executive director Todd Minerson. The goal of the Toronto program is to model healthier masculinity, respect in relationships and "upstanding" – that's the opposite of standing by silently when someone is being harassed in front of you.
Toronto Argonauts defensive back Matt Black has spoken at some 20 schools in the past two years, mostly about everyday choices and their consequences. Black tries to home in on the boys in the audience: "I let them know that it's okay not to have that supermacho, bravado attitude all the time," he said.
When you're trying to ixnay sexism from the teenage boy's mindset, targeting athletic boys has added value because they're often the cool kids leading others.
"We're not targeting athletes because we think there's more violence in athletics. It's just that athletes are typically the popular kids: They're the ones who have a lot of social capital and influence over their peers," says Brian O'Connor of the San Francisco-based organization Futures Without Violence.
The group is harnessing the power of athletic coaches through its program "Coaching Boys into Men," run from middle schools to universities. For 15 minutes a week during sports seasons, trained coaches have conversations with their students about reframing masculinity and building healthier relationships. Coaches have the kind of clout your plastic-pocket-protector-wearing science teacher might not, and coaches wield control over kids' sacred playing time. A three-year evaluation of the program funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that athletes who had participated in the program were more likely to intervene when they witnessed disrespectful or abusive behaviour than boys who hadn't been coached this way.
They are all important early years exercises in something bullying experts call "social norming": You model good ways of communication and stress that this is normal behaviour – and that screaming violent sexual slurs at women is not.
Back in Hamilton, the 23 boys in Karen Dick's class of 30 took ownership of the discussion. "They seemed to take a cold, hard look at their own behaviours," she said. "They were very interested. It was a great class."
The conversation sparked another more serious one about sexual consent: "They made a really interesting connection, that the way these female reporters are being treated is part of the same problem as consent at high school and university. If we use these words in a very jokey, comfortable way, when things become serious in our sexual relationships with other people, the jokiness doesn't leave."
The take-away for the young men, Dick said, was that when it comes to misogyny, "We've got a long way to go and that they're responsible for it."