“We Can All Still Learn” – A Discussion of the Kavanaugh Hearings and Student News Engagement

by | Jan 4, 2019

From left: Erin Stafford, Lillian Wisner, Emily Krall, and Kate Criner

Dana Smiley, a member of Oregon Student Voice, recently wrote an article entitled “The general election was a national shouting match. So why were our classrooms so quiet?” Her pressing query prompted us to think not just of political discourse in schools but more broadly about how current events are addressed by educators.

Especially in light of the recent release of the Knight Foundation “Future of the First Amendment” survey, which asked high school students and teachers about their views on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, it is essential that we consider how students are both receiving and discussing the world beyond our classrooms.

The necessity of analyzing student news consumption was hammered home in recent months with Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious Senate hearings. Students across the country gathered both online and in person to learn and converse about the allegations of sexual assault and harassment against Kavanaugh.

The epidemic of sexual harassment and assault plagues not just the upper echelons of our society but also youth of every gender. To develop productive citizens, schools cannot merely encourage students to vote or read the paper; they must also model and teach respectful discourse, especially surrounding uncomfortable or controversial issues. We cannot begin to address the pervasiveness of sexual harassment until schools foster a culture in which students feel comfortable discussing norms of behavior and impactful issues.

Emily Krall of Paducah Tilghman High School reached out to peers to discuss their perspectives on both sexual harassment/assault and the lack of civic discourse in schools through the lens of these hearings. The following transcripts from her roundtable, alongside findings from the Knight Study and this year’s Stop Street Harassment National Sexual Abuse Report, offer insight into how students processed this momentous event, as well as how we tend to relate to news in general in our fast-paced environment.

Finding One: “News engagement and trust has declined: In addition to low levels of trust in news, students report lower news consumption and engagement. [But] student trust in citizen journalism is on the rise” (Knight Study).

Did you pay attention to the Kavanaugh hearings or to the Supreme Court nomination process in general? What did you see, hear, and notice?

Kate Criner: I watched a lot of the news and paid attention to it, mainly through social media. I was paying attention to the best of my ability because we were in Washington D.C., so sitting down and watching TV wasn’t the most accessible. I definitely watched a lot alongside my parents before we left. And of course, I’m always paying attention to the news outlets on my phone.

Erin Stafford: I was doing pretty much the same thing as Kate. I was watching a lot of videos on my phone, and I think it was very interesting to witness this because I think it will make history.

Lillian Wisner: I didn’t keep up with it as much as you all, but I did watch Dr. Ford’s testimony and Kavanaugh’s response. I think it was very interesting to see the women in the room, just how horrid the look is on their faces as he gave his testimony. I also listen to the news radio on the way to school with my family, and the headlines for a couple days were just the FBI investigation, so I knew more about the FBI investigation than the hearing process itself.

Emily Krall: We had a lot of controversy within our school group as we watched this happen. Going to public school, especially in a southern state like Kentucky, you definitely get a mixed response when it comes to people’s political views.

Going to public school, especially in a southern state like Kentucky, you definitely get a mixed response when it comes to people’s political views.

Especially in our grade, there were a lot of arguments occurring, not necessarily angry or debating, just heavy discussion.

Erin Stafford: I wish we could be more moderate in a situation like this rather than polarized, because when it comes to sexual assault allegations I think no matter what the political stance [of that person] is, they should be taken seriously.

Finding Two: “Educational culture is often focused solely on the classroom, but as students have deeply engaged with social and political affairs, the education system has failed to keep up” (Justin Thatch, qtd. in Oregon Student Voice).

Are you talking about the Kavanaugh hearing in school or at home? Why or why not?

Erin Stafford: In terms of school, like a classroom setting, not really. A lot of teachers want to try and stay [neutral].

Emily Krall: They’re not really allowed to reveal their political stance blatantly. We didn’t really discuss it in school just because none of us are taking a current events class, so it didn’t really pertain to our curriculum. It’s interesting because I know a lot of people whose views don’t meet eye to eye with their parents’ (and mine definitely do not), but I have seen — it’s ridiculous — on Facebook, a lot of people’s parents have taken to that platform to make fun of serious political controversies, almost taking away from the seriousness of the allegations. I know that a lot of people, including my parents, don’t see the other side of things and that makes it kind of hard to discuss things with them without having a lot of fallout and arguments.

Erin Stafford: I discussed it face-to-face. I talked about it with both of my parents. I think it was interesting because when I was talking to my mom, regardless of what I think is true or what I believe, we talked about how it’s a very scary world that we live in where someone can talk about being assaulted and that someone could just blatantly deny that it ever happened. A lot of women in my family told me about times where they were almost sexually assaulted or when they were sexually assaulted, and it sparked a lot of discussion among the women in my family as to how they look at sexual assault allegations and whether or not people believe them.

It sparked a lot of discussion among the women in my family as to how they look at sexual assault allegations and whether or not people believe them.

Finding Three: “Eighty-one percent of women have experienced sexual harassment” (Stop Street Harassment Study).

What message, if any, do you think nominating Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court sends to high school girls? What about high school boys?

Emily Krall: I have read a lot of articles and I’m very active on Twitter, so I have a lot of political activists that I follow. But a lot of people have been talking about how this goes to show that false allegations do nothing to stand in the way of men getting into the positions that they want. What this is saying to high school girls, especially ones that I know, is that essentially, your voice does not matter. I just feel like high school boys and girls need to reconvene and figure out how to respect each other and our boundaries. Obviously, mistakes are made in high school, but we have to learn from those mistakes and know that you are capable of doing wrong things.

Kate Criner: There will be people who will make fun of you and people who don’t believe you, but there will also always be people who do believe you, and you must persist. To high school boys: set the example to those around you.

Erin Stafford: Teach [high school boys] consent. If you don’t assault anyone, and you practice basic human decency and consent, then you shouldn’t have anything to worry about.

How historic do you think the decision around this nomination is or will be? What do you think will be the implications for our generation?

Lillian Wisner: Will children 100 years down the road learn about this in their history books? I don’t know.

Will children 100 years down the road learn about this in their history books? I don’t know.

Erin Stafford: I think that all of this happening is spawning a big resistance towards sexual assault, the treatment of it, and the administration right now, and I think that the resistance against those things could be historic.

Kate Criner: I think that everything happening right now is going to be historic. It’s going to be written down. We’re going to remember it. I think what we can take away from this situation is that it sucked, obviously, this has been — I don’t think there’s a better way to put it. What we can do is use our voices, vote, put respect out into the world.

Emily Krall: I hope that we as a country can come together and realize that polarization is not the key to getting ahead, and we can all still learn.

This interview was conducted and transcribed by Emily Krall, a student at Paducah Tilghman High School. It was edited by Sadie Bograd.

The opinions expressed on the Forum represent the individual students to whom they are attributed. They do not reflect the official position or opinion of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence or the Student Voice Team. Read about our policies.



Since 1983, the Prichard Committee has worked to study priority issues, inform the public and policy makers about best practices and engage citizens, business leaders, families, students, and other stakeholders in a shared mission to move Kentucky to the top tier of all states for education excellence and equity for all children, from their earliest years through postsecondary education.

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