#MeToo: Finnish former high school students raise their voices

Kallio Upper Secondary School of Performing Arts

If you think hashtag campaigns are useless lip service, think again. In the wake of #MeToo, Finland is reeling from a high school harassment scandal. More than 60 women are accusing a male teacher of sexual misconduct spanning two decades. The teacher has been suspended while the school administration investigates the case. The Finnish media has not named him.

But I know who he is because I went to that high school.

When I first read the headlines, I thought the culprit was the philosophy teacher who we all knew was dating — and probably sleeping with — students. Or maybe it was the music teacher who was always cuddling with girls? As I read on, descriptions of rape scene improvisations the teacher participated in clued me in. It was the acting teacher who groped me during a rehearsal.

Let me explain. The school in question is Kallio Upper Secondary School of Performing Arts — a renowned performing arts high school in Helsinki, Finland’s capital. The students there are the offspring of the artistic elite and young talent from all over the country. Students choose from a range of arts courses, which give them an edge in pursuing careers in those fields. When I visit Finland and turn on the TV, I see people I went to school with.

While I focused on modern dance and creative writing, acting was by far the most popular arts subject. The most passionate and ambitious students had their hearts set on attending the coveted Theater Academy after high school, which only accepted a handful of applicants each year. There was fierce competition for roles in school plays; and since casting was done by the teacher, for his good graces. The teacher was considered a guru, whose star students were accepted into the Academy and went on to have prosperous acting careers. His attention and guidance could put you on the path towards the big dream.

Dozens of testimonials were put together in just two days, and were delivered to the school administration and the police. The list of allegations against the teacher is long and astounding, and yet I suspect it’s only the tip of the iceberg. They describe intense hugging, butt groping, and all sorts of other sexual touching. Usually, this occurred in the classroom, masquerading as fiction. It was theater, not reality. One time, a girl fainted, and the teacher jumped on top of her for some odd mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and breast fondling until she came to. Classroom improvisations would lead to rape scenarios, where a female student might end up on the floor under the teacher. He would ask students to imitate animals in heat. During one particular course, all of the female students became so uncomfortable they dropped out.

In school plays, which parents and other students and teachers could attend, one of the girls would inevitably wind up on the stage barely dressed. Sex and sexual violence were recurring themes. This wasn’t just any old high school theater group, but a bold new generation of actors, who didn’t shy away from tough topics!

Little did the adults watching the polished stage performance know what was going on in the rehearsals.

After school hours, the teacher pursued his favorite girls by calling and texting late at night and asking them out on dates. He complimented their talent and looks. Some girls relished the attention, but for others, it was a cause of anxiety. At least one former student had to process what he did to her in therapy.

In recent days, friends from school have told me that dates with the teacher sometimes resulted in sex.

Several students complained to the principal, who was a woman, but she took no action. She verbally reprimanded the teacher once, but allowed him to continue teaching as usual. Astonishingly, she told one student that she was confusing fact with fiction when she couldn’t prove she had been harassed.

It is worth noting that sexual harassment did not exist in the Finnish criminal code until 2014, so the teacher is not facing criminal charges. Even then, it was written in the law only because Finland ratified the Istanbul convention on combating violence against women. Separate laws previously protected employees and students from harassment, with the punishable party being the employer, not the actual perpetrator.

This time, prompted by the #MeToo campaign, instead of going to the principal’s office, the women took their case to the media. Ironically, many students who go to Kallio Upper Secondary School of Performing Arts end up working in that field. Maybe this will teach the school to take students seriously while they’re still attending, in case they become journalists and come back to haunt the place.

Back to my own experience with the teacher, and that rehearsal where I encountered his restless hands. There was a big stage production underway, and I was one of the dancers. In our first joint rehearsal with the actors, we were going over the opening scene, where I sat on the floor with my back to the audience. Someone informed the teacher that the large piece of fabric laying on the floor would be fashioned into a skirt for me. The teacher picked it up and approached me. Instead of wrapping the fabric around my waist, he pressed his palms firmly on my breasts. Before I could even speak, he was up and gone. I glanced around the room, thinking, “Did anybody see this shit?” But the only people paying attention were behind me, and couldn’t possibly have seen anything.

There was no question in my mind that what happened was intentional. For a second I considered shouting, “Hey, he put his hands on my chest,” but my tongue was tied. I barely spoke in the classroom. How was I going to raise hell at a rehearsal? I imagined how it would play out: the room would stop and stare at the girl sitting alone on the floor, yelling out random things about her tits. “I was just trying to understand how this skirt works,” the teacher would scoff. “It was an accident. Don’t be hysterical.” Eyerolls and awkward chuckles would follow. So, I stayed quiet and carried on.

Afterwards, I heard someone comment that the teacher had clearly been drunk that day. As a teenage girl living in Helsinki, I was used to dodging drunk, gropey men. At the time, I thought that explained it. But now I know alcohol wasn’t the source of his brazenness. This was who he was. He knew he could get away with a quick grope, even if he didn’t know the girl. He saw an opportunity in our turned backs and took it.

Another reason I shrugged off this event was the “anything goes” vibe at school. We prided ourselves on being cutting edge, open-minded, and liberal. Students’ art projects often explored taboo topics, and when the occasional photo with an erect penis was removed from the wall, we decried this “oppressive” censorship. There were no real boundaries between teachers and students, as many of the art teachers were large, charismatic personalities, who cared about their students and treated them as friends.

No one raised an eyebrow at a male teacher and female student wrapped in a tight embrace in the hallway. And a teacher going out with a student for a glass of wine? He could pick a perfectly visible spot in downtown Helsinki.

Finnish high school students are aged 16 to 19. The age of consent for sex is 16. It’s  18 when the relationship in question is between a student and teacher, (not that the letter of the law matters much when it comes to crimes of violence against women).

To put things into perspective, a forcible rape (in Finnish law, this simply means rape without aggravating factors) in Finland warrants an average sentence of a year and half — and a whopping 40 per cent of perpetrators receive only probation, not actual jail time. An aggravated rape (an especially heinous rape where the victim suffers severe injuries, a deadly weapon is used, or if the victim is a child or a handicapped person, etc.) carries a maximum of 10 years in prison, and yet the most common sentence is the legal minimum of two years. This, too, is sometimes given as probation. So-called “first-timers” — meaning it’s been at least three years since the end of their previous sentence — typically serve only half of their jail time before being given automatic probation. A teacher harassing or screwing underage students, then, can reasonably expect nothing more than a gentle slap on the wrist from the legal system.

The insultingly lenient sentencing for sexual violence may seem contradictory for a Nordic nation. Finland prides itself as being one of the most humane, egalitarian countries in the world — a fabulous place to be a woman. It would appear, though, that this “equality” fails women when they become victims of violence — then the human rights of perpetrators are prioritized over the victims. In Finnish courtrooms, sentences are reduced for mind-boggling reasons, such as the damage to the assaulter’s reputation, his loss of a job, and media attention around the case. Another defense for short sentences is the cost of prisons. Precious resources, criminologists believe, are better spent on prevention and rehabilitation. The idea that prison should be punitive is dismissed as primitive and unethical — an American kind of excess. While the general public do often voice their outrage online when a sex crime receives a ludicrously short sentence, that online outrage doesn’t bring people to the streets, nor does it demand or effect change.

Wherever there are women complaining of sexual assault and harassment, there will be people trying to discredit them. The online criticism following the high school teacher being exposed for what he did to his students has been straight out of the textbook.

“Why didn’t they speak out when it was happening?”

Generally, students don’t get to complain about what’s being taught at school. If you don’t like acting classes, maybe it means you don’t have what it takes to act.

Most importantly, they were teenagers then and they are grown-ass women now. It seemed normal, flattering, or a necessary evil at the time, but now they know it was creepy, manipulative, and abusive.

“It’s a witch hunt! Sexual harassment is so trendy now. This guy could be innocent and now his reputation is ruined.”

Women in general have little to gain from speaking out about assault or abuse. These former students don’t want infamy — they are speaking anonymously. Their motivation is to protect other girls from a known perpetrator. Besides, how could sixty people be telling the same story if it wasn’t true?

“The girls wanted his attention.”

Some did, some didn’t. Doesn’t matter. He was the adult, the authority figure, the gatekeeper of Theater Academy. He should have known better.

“I find it hard to believe this kind of harassment would be allowed to go on for so long.”

Me too, brother. Me too.

Zaina Brown is the creator of World Of Dancers, an online community of art lovers, and the author of upcoming travel memoir “Fire In The Belly”. Her documentary “Traveling Bellydancer in India” (2015) is the winner of Accolade Award of Merit. She is currently based in Hua Hin, Thailand. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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