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Photo: Students protest outside MH Junior College (Screenshot from RÚV).

#MeToo “Revolution” Within Icelandic Secondary Schools

This week, students at MH junior college protested a history of perceived inaction on behalf of school administrators in matters of sexual abuse and misconduct. During a staged walk-out, students called on administrators and government officials to take action. In addition to offering formal apologies, school administrators, alongside one government minister, took steps to rectify the state of affairs in the future.

Lipstick smeared on bathroom mirrors

Tuesday, October 3, was a day of protest at the Hamrahlíð Junior College (Menntaskólinn við Hamrahlíð) in Reykjavík.

Rhetorical questions were smeared on bathroom mirrors with lipstick:

“Why are there so many rapists?”

School administrators were addressed via typed-out messages hung in the hallways:

“As a student at MH, I refuse to accept that full-on rapists are sitting across from me in class, are participating in group projects – are passing me by in the halls.”

The source of these protests?

The perception that history was repeating itself at MH: that once again school administrators were handling accusations of sexual abuse passively – and that victims were being made to confront perpetrators in the halls.

“For fuck’s sake, do something. I refuse to attend the same school as a person charged with raping his little cousin.”

The same war, ten years on …

In an op-ed published on Vísir.is on the following morning, MH alumna Brynhildur Karlsdóttir delineated her experience at MH junior college ten years ago:

“When I was a 17-year-old student at MH, I was raped by my friend and schoolmate. When I finally mustered the courage to open up to school administrators – I was met with closed doors. Despite anxiety attacks, fear, and post-traumatic stress, I never reported the incident to the police, and the only solace that the administration could offer was the prospect of switching schools.”

Brynhildur’s best friend waged a similar war:

“Having been brutally raped, my friend Elísabet pressed charges and offered substantial evidence. Nonetheless, she was made to confront her rapist in the hallways and attend the same classes. There was no justice for Elísabet, no one looked out for her, and she alone was made to shoulder responsibility for the violence she suffered. She committed suicide in 2019.”

Later in her piece, Brynhildur weaves her narrative into contemporary events at MH, describing how a student, as mentioned above, had decided to take matters into her own hands, writing lipstick messages onto bathroom mirrors. “I know this because my sister and my sister-in-law attend MH, and they tell me of a kind of student revolution that’s taking place.”

Speaking to a journalist from Vísir, Brynhildur described the administration’s reaction to the protests vicariously, through her sister and sister-in-law: “They said that the administration had been rather upset, and referred to the protests a kind of ‘group hysteria.’ They don’t seem to be showing any consideration for the experiences of students, who are opening up about the injustice that they’ve suffered. It’s just silenced, and, once again, the shame lives on with the victims.”

The President of MH, Steinn Jóhannsson, reached out to Brynhildur on the following morning, offering an apology on the school’s behalf (despite not having been President during Brynhildur’s time at the college):

“He offered a former apology on behalf of MH … it was unexpected,” Brynhildur remarked. “One is somehow not used to someone accepting responsibility and saying, ‘Yes, that’s awful, we’re so sorry to hear it, and we failed you.’ That was big.”

MH administrators also offered a formal apology to students, observing that they regretted the fact that current and former students had experienced distress relating to matters of sexual abuse and misconduct within the school premises.

“These are sensitive issues; we want to learn and do better,” a press release from the school read.

1,000 students participate in protests

At 11 AM yesterday morning, dozens of MH students staged a walk-out, congregating outside the walls of the school in a meeting of solidarity and to voice their demands. Other students from other secondary schools also attended.

Agla Elín Davíðsdóttir, a student at MH, read a list of demands geared toward changing school contingency plans regarding matters of sexual abuse.

“We demand that administrators treat sexual offences with the same, if not greater, gravity as other violent offences,” Agla stated.

As noted by RÚV, the protestors made four demands:

  • Perpetrators of sexual violence be expelled from school (i.e. that victims be spared confrontation with perpetrators on school premises)
  • Gender studies be made mandatory in all schools
  • Administrators, teachers, and staff receive gender and sexology training
  • Students be able to report sexual offences in an easy manner

The minister responds

Among those who attended the protests was Ásmundur Einar Daðason, Minister of Education and Children.

When asked why he had decided to attend the protests, Ásmundur remarked that the students were calling for the government and school administrators to listen. “And that’s why I’m here … I think that for too long we’ve failed to engage with these voices … these young people, they’re heralding a new era, and if we fail to listen – we’re in trouble.”

Addressing the crowd, Ásmundur offered an apology on behalf of the Icelandic government: “We apologise for not having listened to you over the past years,” he stated.

Aside from the apologies, the upshot of the protests was also more concrete: school administrators from MH held a meeting with the Association of Icelandic Secondary School Students (SÍF) and decided that the school would partner with the association in its efforts against sexual violence and harassment. Minister Ásmundur Einar has also stated that he would call a meeting with the headmasters of Icelandic secondary schools to review contingency plans.

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