“The way our private boys’ schools respond to sexism isn’t good enough.”

Yesterday it was reported that up to 50 Year 12 students at Melbourne Grammar had featured in a degrading, self-produced video in which boys rated the attractiveness of their female formal dates.

Some girls in the “Tinder boot camp” video are rated as low as one out of 10, and one student can be heard saying nothing “under a seven” is acceptable.

Another student is asked if his date is the same girl two other students already “went through”. His reply? “Third time lucky.”

Already, the school’s spin machine has cranked into full swing. On Saturday, Melbourne Grammar headmaster Roy Kelley fronted the media, trotting out the standard line that we have come to expect in the wake of such scandals.

In one very snappy soundbite Kelley managed to hit the buzzword trifecta, combining the phrases ‘very seriously’, ‘respect of others’ and ‘positive values’ all into the one quote.

“Melbourne Grammar School takes very seriously its responsibility to instill positive values in all our students, particularly in relation to the respect of others” he said.

Then the alumni Rolodex was busted out, and Melbourne Grammar old boy Julian Burnside agreed to face the press to reframe the matter as being a ‘society wide’ problem.

Advertisement

“It’s probably a bit unfair to blame the school,” the lawyer said.

“It’s an awfully long time since I was there… but I would say it’s more likely a reflection of broader societal attitudes.”

Male students from Melbourne Grammar. Image via Twitter.

According to the now highly predictable media script, we can now expect a lull for a day or two before the school releases a further damage control statement that will likely say they have ‘investigated the matter fully’ and are ‘taking serious steps’ towards fixing the problem.

Following this, the school newsletter might publish an announcement that an ‘expert speaker’ is gearing up for a highly symbolic and tokenistic important visit, adding the school is ‘looking forward to hearing the speaker’s message’.

Parents will likely be reassured the school is doing absolutely everything in its power to protect their endowments students, and that the administration is ‘working closely’ to restore its reputation to assist any victims and their families.

This, of course, is usually just a load of horse manure.

Take Brighton Grammar, for example. Just two weeks ago we learned Year 11 students at the elite private boys school had published a “Young Slut, Slut Draft” Instagram account which included images of girls, some as young as 11. The group contained 46 members, the majority of whom appear to be Brighton Grammar students.

One post reads “[*****] is an up and coming draft pick in the 2018 slut draft we like to start them young!! Key traits – she’s 13 but tits of a 14-year-old, loves anal but doesn’t mind copping it up the pussy!!”

Another photograph of three Grade Six students was described as an “orgy of YS [Young Sluts]” who would make “prime candidates for the YS Slut Draft to take place in 2016”.

On cue, and true to the formula, the school released a statement saying they were taking the matter “very seriously” and that “the girls’ wellbeing is a top priority”.

Author Nina Funnell. (Image supplied)

“Brighton Grammar has been working with these families over the weekend and will continue offering ongoing support,” the contrite school statement read.

Yet according to Melanie Sheppard, who is both the mother of one of the primary school victims and the key whistleblower, Brighton Grammar only ever made “one five minute phone call” to her.

Additionally, Ms Sheppard only learnt about the punishment the two ringleaders received via the media.

“Support? What support? One five minute phone call? I had to read about the outcome in a press statement. How is that treating the girls as a ‘top priority’?” she said.

Worse still, headmaster Ross Featherston has boasted to the media that he has “contacted one of Australia's leading cyber educators and plan[s] to meet with her very soon… to provide guidance to parents on matters relevant to social media and the online world."

But according to Sharna Bremner from End Rape on Campus Australia, the problem is not social media or technology.

"What we are seeing here is a deliberate attempt by an institution to reframe a sexism and misogyny problem as a ‘cyber problem’, because that’s a whole lot more palatable for parents," she explains.

“It’s so much easier for a school to blame an external force — like the internet — than to address an internal problem like ingrained misogyny. But the problem is not the smartphone in their hands, it’s the attitudes in their heads.

“We see these reframes time and time again; it’s a well-rehearsed tactic repeatedly employed by schools and other exclusive male institutions. Elite university residential colleges, for example, will try to reframe rape culture as merely binge drinking culture, in an attempt to shift the conversation away from sexual assault,” Bremner continues.

“Schools don’t want to admit they have a sexism problem so they are dressing it up as a cyber concern. It's a deflection strategy.”

Brighton Grammar School.

Indeed, schools are highly reluctant to ever admit they have a problem with sexism, precisely because the public knows that you cannot cure sexism with a two hour lecture from a visiting guest speaker.

Sexism is like asbestos: it’s in the very walls. There is no quick fix, and getting rid of it takes hard work and introspection.

Furthermore, while the school has expelled the two ringleaders, Dr Michael Salter from the University of Western Sydney says purging two ‘fall guys’ is also a kind of public relations strategy in that it allows the school to act as though they’ve comprehensively resolved the matter by cutting out the cancer.

“Two expulsions can serve as a bit of shock treatment to the school’s culture and to schools more broadly, but it can easily lead to the perception that it’s ‘just a couple of rotten apples’, [as though the school is saying] ‘this was a limited issue that we’ve now dealt with',” says Dr Salter.

Such a tactic also allows the school to preserve the fiction that this was an incident isolated to just one or two people (as opposed to a group involving dozens of students).

What’s really fascinating is that Brighton Grammar is already scheduled to have a talk given by Australian of the Year, David Morrison, later in 2016. Yet the school headmaster has made no mention of this to the media, as to do so would keep the focus squarely on sexism and misogyny in boys' clubs. Instead, they have chosen to tout their engagement of a leading ‘cyber educator.’

Perhaps the most egregious example of this ‘reframe strategy’ was that employed by Trinity Grammar, an elite private boys' school in Sydney.

In 2000, it was reported middle-school students in the boarding house were being repeatedly tied up and gang raped by older students who used a large, wooden dildo dubbed “the anaconda” that a senior student had made in woodwork class. It was reported one of the victims was sexually assaulted 75 times over a four month period.

Rather than contact the NSW Rape Crisis Centre – or another leading sexual assault service provider — Trinity Grammar engaged the services of a reputed public relations firm, AMC Media, whose job it became to sanitise, minimise and whitewash the gang rapes by reframing these events as a mere ‘bullying’ problem.

What happened next is extraordinary.

Over the following months AMC Media went to work, and in doing so were able to entirely rewrite the media discourse. By the time the matter went to court, journalists were no longer using the expression ‘gang rape’, ‘sodomy’ or even ‘sexual assault’ and were instead referring to the repeated rapes as a ‘bullying problem’.

Headlines like “Bullies and cowards”, “Others speak out against decades of bullying”, “Bullied pupil sues school for damages” and “Trinity settles out of court with bullying victim” show just how comprehensively AMC Media did their job.

Of course, once the debate terrain had shifted, Trinity Grammar then claimed the school itself was the victim of bullying by the media.

In an absolutely nauseating interview with journalist Caroline Overington, the then-headmasterMilton Cujes protested that the school was being unfairly victimised by the publicity.

Trinity Grammar School.

“We have a situation where Trinity, in effect, is being bullied,” he bemoaned.

Cujes also sent a letter home to parents stating that “as an old boy,” he understood the “mixed emotions” many people felt about the trial, especially in relation to the “embarrassment for the good name of the school”.

Now just let that sink in.

Students were being gang raped. Sodomised. Abused with a torture instrument. And the school’s response was to hire a media consultant whose job was specifically to minimise and whitewash what happened. Worse still, the school then tried to compare their own ‘bullying’ victimisation in the media to that experienced by the rape victims.

Can you imagine it? Can you even fathom the horrendous sense of betrayal, abandonment, intimidation and isolation those victims would have felt knowing their own school was campaigning to minimise their abuse? Knowing their own school fees were probably being used to pay the PR consultant and school lawyers?

And apparently it worked.

In the end, two 16-year-old Trinity Grammar students who confessed to offenses involving the dildo were given a mere 12 month good behaviour bond. One student who admitted using his school tie to bind the victim who was assaulted 75 times was found guilty of intimidation and released on a six-month good behaviour bond. A fourth student, who assaulted a 14-year-old boy, was allowed to plead guilty to intimidation in return for the withdrawal of two charges of aggravated indecent assault. He was also placed on a six-month good behaviour bond.

In the end, not a single student had a conviction recorded against them.

“Each boy had his own team of lawyers. These were ruling-class boys,” wrote academics Scott Ponynting and Mike Donaldson in what is surely the most compelling and comprehensive review of the entire case and its subsequent cover-up.

As for AMC Media, these days they fight on the side of good, and CEO Anthony McClellan personally uses his deep expertise and talent in the media to fight for rights of victims in sexual harassment cases.

For this, McClellan has earned my respect.

Trinity Grammar, on the other hand, has only sunk further in my estimation of them.

At no point did the school properly apologise to the victims. At no point did it publicly acknowledge what a brutal, bastardly act it was to euphemistically reframe the rapes as mere bullying. And at no point has it seriously admitted it has a sexual assault problem.

Watch: Mamamia staff discuss why rape is an issue both women and men need to address. (Post continues after video.)

Earlier this year ,Trinity Grammar was investigated after a group of students allegedly committed “a string of sexual abuses” involving primary age students.

According to reports, the student who instigated the sexual abuse encouraged three boys to engage in sex acts with at least four other victims. The abuses allegedly involved boys getting naked and performing sex acts in the school toilets and parts of the playground.

This is shocking but frankly, I wasn't surprised.

As Sharna Bremner says, “schools will never change what they do not acknowledge. The first step to fixing the problem is admitting you’ve got a problem. If you’re not even willing to correctly name the issue, you have absolutely no hope in fixing it.”

Worse, these boys grow up and go on to elite university residential colleges. For instance, Trinity Grammar is a feeder school for St Paul's College at Sydney University — the same college that was exposed a few years ago after students made a Facebook group titled “Define Statutory: Pro-rape, anti consent”.

“This year we have seen some horrendous reports concerning behaviour in university residential colleges including sexist chants at a UNSW college, sexual exploitation of female students by male students at Johns XXIII at ANU, a Rackweb at Wesley college at Sydney University, and even a ‘no means yes, yes means anal’ chant at a University of Queensland college," said Bremner.

“A lot of the young men who commit these acts at university have come through feeder schools like [these elite private boys schools].”

All five students recently expelled from ANU’s John XXIII College — for taking creepshots of women and posting them online — had matriculated from either Geelong Grammar in Victoria or Shore in NSW.

“These attitudes have been learned well before these men reach college. They’re learned in primary and high-school,” said Bremner.

If private boy’s schools keep treating the problem as nothing more than a PR debacle that needs to be carefully stage-managed with the help of media flack-merchants and spin-doctors, these problems will persist.

Your move, private boys’ schools: you’re on notice and we’re all watching.

Featured image: iStock

Nina Funnell is a freelance writer and author. In 2010 Nina was awarded the Australian Human Rights Community (Individual) award for her work in sexual assault advocacy. 

If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual violence help is available at 1800 RESPECT. 

JOIN THE CONVERSATION
FROM OUR NETWORK