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Kavanaugh hearing offers real-life lessons for Santa Fe students

September 28, 2018

The students in Mark Bixby’s classroom at Santa Fe Prep could feel the history taking place.

As the real-time drama of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh played out on televisions and computer screens all over the country, the Prep juniors talked about the impact Thursday’s hearing would have on the makeup of the Supreme Court, women’s rights — and their futures.

Their discussion was as real as it was raw.

The next generation understands the stakes.

For junior Isadora Ungard, the hours of testimony coming from Kavanaugh and Blasey Ford before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., was liberating.

“For so long women have been shut down, their voices overruled by men in our country,” she said. “If she wins or loses or whatever, it’s empowering to see that you can step out front and speak about things that happened to you.”

It was, as they like to say, a juicy teaching moment: The searing testimony of both Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh — she emotionally talking about an alleged sexual assault 36 years ago and he just as emotionally denying it — allowed teachers and students to react to history as it was being made.

Bixby’s dozen or so students sat around a rectangle of tables, facing one another in a private school setting that, despite being located in Santa Fe, may not be too dissimilar to the prep school environments both Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh knew as teens.

Alex Hoback, a junior, said that while Thursday’s hearing was not a courtroom trial, it may have had the effect of eliciting judgment on both people that could be just as damaging.

“It’s he said, she said,” Hoback noted. “But it’s not just any story coming out from her. It’s traumatic.”

The end result, some students said, could leave both Ford and Kavanaugh as historic figures in a national spectacle that could be the defining moment of #MeToo, the women-driven movement that may become every bit as powerful as many of the men it has challenged.

The high school juniors, who would have been studying the 1690s Salem witch trials had this been just another Thursday, found comparisons between the sequence of accusations and prosecutions in colonial days — which ruined the reputation and lives of both men and women — and Thursday’s saga.

Bixby couldn’t help but see the parallels to history.

“Because of the hearing and the accusations, people’s careers and lives are being put out there for everyone in the public to see,” Bixby said. “There’s a lot of you hanging out there on the line.”

Bixby said he saw the hearing as a rare opportunity to bring a defining moment of history into the classroom, coming on the heels of a long series of accusations, arrests and convictions of once-influential men, toppled from their perches by the testimony of women. The names are famous and once-unassailable: film producer Harvey Weinstein, actor and comic Bill Cosby, USA Gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar and many others.

Ungard, a gymnast, was aware of the Nassar scandal, in which well over 200 female athletes said he had sexually abused them under the guise of providing medical care. While Blasey Ford seemingly stood alone as she testified before a Senate committee, Ungard said it doesn’t matter if it’s one woman or hundreds who make such claims.

“I don’t think anyone would lie about being sexually assaulted,” she said.

The students discussed the fact that the Salem trials produced jail or death sentences based simply on the testimony of those who claimed they were bewitched by the accused. In the 17th century, there were few other witnesses, no documents to review and no physical evidence to back up the plaintiffs’ claims, as Bixby made clear in class.

Given 36 years have passed since the evening that Blasey Ford said she was sexually assaulted at a party, Bixby and some of the students questioned whether producing physical evidence or even a corroborating witness willing to testify will be possible in this case.

“How do we decide who is ultimately correct in this?” Bixby asked his students.

“We can’t,” one boy answered.

Though many of the boys in the class kept silent throughout the discussion — perhaps unsure of what to say — one drew some raised eyebrows from the girls in the class when he referred to a false rape accusation made by a woman against two football players at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University last year. (The woman who made those false charges was recently sentenced to one year in prison.)

Hoback said no matter how the drama plays out — and even if the Senate confirms Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court — the jurist’s reputation is likely shot.

“Even if he gets confirmed, people will see his name and say, ’Oh, he’s the one who sexually assaulted a woman 30 years ago,” Hoback said. “His image is diminished.”

Junior Sydney Manningham wasn’t so sure she agreed.

“It’s the woman who’s on trial,” she said.

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