“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; therefore, he will rise up and show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him… you will weep no more. How gracious he will be when you cry for help…he will answer you.”
– Isaiah 30:18
Childhood and adolescence are times of growth and schools are one of the places of it. In partnership with students and families, NBCS provides opportunities for students to develop their character, their effort, and their learning. In the end, these are the things that students take with them from school, from childhood and adolescence, into adulthood and the wider world. In the uncertainty of the future, we can be certain that the importance of character, effort and learning remain undiminished.
The past two weeks has seen the spotlight of attention focused on what is an ongoing societal concern about sex and consent. The stories of abuse suffered by many, often in teenage years, at the hands of their peers or supposed friends, is heart-rending. Attempts to look at causal factors have sometimes ended in comments, whether intentional or not, construed as victim-blaming or victim-shaming. Conversation has moved towards how together; we might stop sexual abuse from happening in the first place. Sexual abuse is a societal problem. As such, it requires a societal solution. It requires combined action from schools, parents, families and students, as well as from other organisations and institutions within society. We need first to understand the causes of abuse and then to address them. In addressing the causes of sexual assault or abuse, we need to look at preventative factors, including education, respect, dignity, attitudes, gender issues and character. Unfortunately, even when all these factors are addressed, the problem will not be solved. Therefore, we need to follow preventative measures with protective measures. Alcohol does not cause sexual assault, but it certainly doesn’t help. Pornography does not cause sexual assault, but it does present entirely unrealistic and unhelpfully sexist and sexual ways of viewing the world. It also rewires brains, particularly adolescent brains, destroys intimacy and devalues sex in ways that are also not helpful. Removing alcohol and pornography will not prevent sexual assault, but the absence of both, particularly in teenage lives, will help.
At times such as these, we refocus our energies on developing character, and remind ourselves that it is part of what we do every day. Together with our families, we are growing young people of character. Who do we want our students to be? We want each of them to be someone who respects others, who understands and values consent, who recognises the dignity and personhood of others, who cares for and considers the interests of others first, who is a person of integrity and character, who will not commit sexual assault. This is the heart of the matter.
The person of character is also far less likely to become alcohol-soaked to the point of losing their inhibitions, out of respect for themselves and others, and likewise, who recognises and therefore avoids the devaluing and debasing interactions of pornography. We live in a society that has devalued sex, that has commodified sex, that has rendered sex as merely physical. Sex is physical, but it is so much more, it is intimate in an emotional and relational way that goes far beyond its physical intimacy. The pain or trauma of sexual assault goes well beyond the physical, partly because of the intended emotional and relational nature of sex, and partly because sexual assault is often far more about power or control than sex, and therefore doubly dehumanises and devalues its victims.
At NBCS, our values are Gratitude, Respect, Courage and Compassion. They help us to make sense of the world and navigate our way through it. In our current circumstance, we are grateful for those who have shone a light on what has always been an issue, albeit sometimes hidden. We are reminded that deep-seated respect for the dignity and worth of everyone is a non-negotiable starting point for a solution to this and many of the problems that beset our world. We are grateful for the courage of many young women who have come forward, despite it reigniting their pain, to remind us of the importance of addressing issues we sometimes find hard to address. And we look with compassion on those who have been preyed upon, irrespective of their strength or vulnerability. We also look with compassion on young people trying to navigate the adult world in adolescent minds and bodies, that we might have the ability to take them seriously and help show them a better way, for their sake and for others.
Learning at NBCS takes on a variety of forms, including through Wellbeing and PDHPE. Woven into our educational programs in the academic and wellbeing frames are age-appropriate materials that focus on relationships, our bodies, consent, sexual health, and sex education. Our approach is planned, sequential and recognises the work done in the academic and wellbeing domains. It has been developed over many years, with experts in sexual health, wellbeing, and education. It combines the best of our programs with the involvement of outside experts. Ongoing evaluation of our programs happens as a matter of course. The current community conversation about sex and consent is certainly helpful for us as we continue to do this. Topics that address these issues are purposefully covered across the Wellbeing and PDHPE Curriculum from K to 12.
I take this opportunity to urge us all not to shy away from hard topics, but to continue to share our expertise and wisdom in appropriate and carefully considered ways. In the past weeks, I have met and discussed this matter with the Senior Leadership Team, with NBCS Secondary Staff, with approximately 100 school heads as part of a meeting of the NSW and ACT branch of the Association of Heads of Independent Schools last weekend, and today in a Zoom meeting led by Detective Superintendent Stacey Maloney, Head of the NSW Police Sex Crimes Squad. I recognise that many would have liked an earlier outline of what we do, or comments about what this means for NBCS. It has been strongly in my thoughts and remains so.
If any member of our community needs direct support, or wishes to provide feedback, please to not hesitate to be in touch with me, with Mrs Jenny Phillips (Head of Secondary), Mrs Julie Smith (Head of Primary), or Mr Drew Dickson (Assistant Principal, Wellbeing). Our school counsellors are also more than willing to make themselves available. We encourage the reporting of sexual assault to the police, and are able to provide support with this process as needed.