#DebateToo: A Plea for Integrity by Nina Potischman

Nina Potischman debated for Hunter College High School for four years, and is currently a freshman at Pomona College. Her senior year she was top seed, top speaker, and a finalist at the TOC, and won a number of national tournaments.

Thank you to Maddy Stevens, SunHee Simon, and Marshall Thompson for their input.

My first year at camp, I was told one of the counselors had made a female student drill with him while he showered, so I should avoid going to his office hours alone. At the time I wondered, if young girls had to be warned about this person, why was he allowed to teach at camp? Since first joining LD debate, I knew that there were people that I never want to be alone with: some were camp counselors, others were upperclassman, while others were judges and coaches.

Throughout my time in debate, I realized that many of my own experiences fit with widespread collective knowledge of who constituted a threat. Most interactions that made me uncomfortable were not isolated, but rather formed a tapestry of shared experiences throughout the community.

The #MeToo movement has shaped my thoughts about how systems, despite collective awareness of wrongdoing, sustain support for prominent individuals. It has given a platform to victims of sexual assault, and has pushed people to take their experiences seriously and ensure that abusers do not retain power within the industry. The movement has given visibility to problems many were already aware of, and has emphasized the importance of speaking out against sexual violence.

As Time’s Up and #MeToo gained traction, individuals in debate discussed their own experiences with sexual harassment and violence in debate.[1] There are people involved in debate who have harassed members of the community and exploited age differences and power imbalances. There are people who have made girls afraid to attend tournaments, made them feel unwelcome in the activity, and objectified successful female debaters. Many girls have voiced concern about these individuals to camp directors and school coaches with no avail.

So why are these people still at debate tournaments? Why are they still coaching? Why are they hired by camps? Do those who hire coaches and judges not care enough to find out about the integrity of those they entrust to supervise young students, or do they know and not take these issues seriously?

Debate is no different from the rest of the world; it is not free from sexual violence. We often forget that debaters are children, and that many people in positions of power have just graduated from high school. Many are given too much power over younger students, and it should not surprise us that our current system allows this abuse. There are significant issues with hiring practices in debate that shield people from accountability: harassment and exploitation are systemic problems, not isolated occurrences.

Many who came forward in response to #MeToo about their experiences with sexual violence did not name their perpetrators. Some, justifiably, fear that giving names could cause school administrations to shut down their team.[2] Others have spoken out against specific individuals in the past and have seen nothing change; there is still a cloud of privilege and prestige shielding powerful members of debate from criticism and repercussions for their actions. We can not expect children to take on complete responsibility for ensuring perpetrators are not rehired. We must change social norms in debate that allow threatening people to gain power.

Part of the problem is a bizarre hiring practice for debate camps and teams. If someone is a successful debater, they will receive offers for coaching students and working at debate camps, without even applying for jobs or submitting information for a background check. The interests at hand are clear: if you were good at debate, you’ll get a job.

But leadership requires integrity. It should be a bare minimum that debate instructors never pose a threat to adolescents. Camps require positive evidence of the ability to teach debate, but with students’ safety, they presume that instructors can be trusted. We don’t merely hope our instructors understand debate, so why are we satisfied to merely hoping that our instructors will not abuse their power?

There has been some effort to take these issues seriously. Recently, VBI held a survey at the end of camp that asked students if there were people they felt should not be instructors (one of the people I listed was not hired the next year). However, camps, including VBI, and teams that are making an effort can and must do more. There are a number of things that can be done to proactively combat sexual assault and harassment (these suggestions are a starting point, and by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Coaches should actively reach out to other members of the community to find out who should not have authority. There are a number of instances in which sexual harassment has been reported to some coaches, but others are unaware of the incident.[3]
  • Take seriously the claims of those who accuse others of sexual harassment – investigate these accusations, and respect the wishes of survivors when determining how to handle the situation.[4]
  • Put women and people of color who are more aware of issues regarding discrimination and harassment within debate in positions of power.[5]

To debate camps and coaches: it is not a defense to say that you “didn’t know.” You are obligated to make sure that people you hire will not pose a danger to children; the burden is not on others to do that work for you. You owe it to your students and you owe it to your peers to care more about the safety of your students than about the competitive success of your instructors.

The burden must no longer fall on female debaters to know who is a threat. Men in debate must take responsibility and action to prevent sexual harassment in debate. You cannot continue to turn to each other and ask why women and people of color do not populate your space when you refuse to prioritize their safety over the ego of an abuser whose only redemption is the number of words per minute he can speak.[6]

[1] Thank you to Maddy Stevens for this contribution.

[2] Thank you to Maddy Stevens for this contribution.

[3] One camp consults a team of first year out women who they are consulting about all potential hires before finalizing offers to work at camp. I like this idea because often people who are farther out of the activity are not aware of younger debaters that may pose a threat to students.

[4] Thank you to SunHee Simon for this contribution.

[5] There are additional steps that should be taken to prevent sexual harassment. Because discussing them at length would potentially distract from the central issue of the article, I have included them here:

  • As a coach with a student who has been accused of harassment, it is your responsibility to inform others that this person should not be hired.
  • Run rigorous background checks on all staff members. Hiring camps and teams should contact references and confirm the eligibility of staff for hire or rehire.
  • Monitor staff and ensure that they are not alone in private spaces with students. Some camps have had students work alone in instructor’s rooms, which should not be allowed.
  • Reach out to administrators at other camps to ensure that you do not hire someone that was fired from a different camp for sexual harassment.
  • Camps that fire someone for harassment must also inform others that this person should not be hired.
  • Camps should create forums where people can easily submit concerns about staff members.

[6] Thank you to Maddy Stevens for this contribution.