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6th grade Valentine's dance raises issues of consent, empowering girls

Tuesday , February 13, 2018 - 6:28 PM9 comments

WEST HAVEN — If there’s a take-home lesson to be learned from this year’s sixth-grade dance at Kanesville Elementary School, it’s that it’s OK to just say no. Even on Valentine’s Day.

Meaning, if a student doesn’t want to dance with a classmate, she — or he — doesn’t have to.

Which wasn’t always the case.

Lane Findlay, spokesman for Weber School District, says many of the elementary schools in the district have long held an annual Valentine’s Day dance for sixth-graders. Participation is optional, and students are taught various styles of dancing in their physical education classes leading up to the event.

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Findlay said it’s common for schools to use dance cards, which students fill out with the names of classmates they’d like to dance with. All students are told that if a classmate asks to be on their dance card, they shouldn’t say “No, thanks.”

That didn’t sit well with the parent of one girl in the district.

Natalie Richard, of West Haven, met with the principal at Kanesville Elementary to voice her objection to that requirement. She believes that telling a girl she can’t say “no” to a boy who asks her to dance sets a dangerous precedent.

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The Standard-Examiner contacted Richard for comment, and although she initially agreed to an interview, she later asked that her quotes not be used, citing personal issues. While the Standard-Examiner is honoring that request, it is including basic information about Richard that she had already provided to a local television station.

That interview has gone viral on social media and in the national press. Findlay said he’s been fielding calls from the likes of CNN and People magazine.

Although the dance requirement issue hasn’t come up in the past, Findlay acknowledged that Richard has a valid concern.

“There will be some advice, moving forward, that will be given to the schools,” Findlay said.

On Monday, the school district sent out a statement explaining that students should no longer be told they can’t refuse to dance with a classmate. The release states: “Although we still want to strongly encourage inclusion, kindness, and mutual respect, we feel this change will be of greater benefit to all students who choose to attend these dances.”

Marjukka Ollilainen, professor of sociology at Weber State University, said she can see both sides of this issue.

“I understand the idea of inclusivity — it’s pretty harmless in some sense,” Ollilainen said. “But at the same time, to flat-out say you can’t say ‘no’ when you’re trying to empower girls and boys to pay attention to consent? It’s a problem.”

Ollilainen, who researches gender issues, said the school and district probably didn’t think through the problem from that perspective.

“I can understand the concern of the mother, because it’s so ingrained in our culture to just ‘go along,’” she said. “So much of today’s cases of sexual assault originate from a culture that tells young women that ‘no’ is not OK.”

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Although the issue at Kanesville Elementary School is different from the current #MeToo movement, which addresses sexual assault and harassment, Ollilainen said the two are related.

“Me Too is more about power in the workplace, this is more about the relationship between girls and boys,” she said. “But I think that, in a sense, the Me Too moment is bringing all of these sorts of relationship issues to the forefront. There’s a lot of talk today about what constitutes consent.”

Findlay said it’s left up to each principal to determine whether or not a school holds a sixth-grade dance. Of the 27 elementary schools in the Weber School District, 15 of them host dances — 12 are held on Valentine’s Day and another three are offered in the spring, according to Findlay.

The Davis School District sees similar numbers to those of Weber in terms of sixth-grade dances. Davis spokesman Chris Williams sent an email to the 62 elementary schools in the district, and he received early responses from 16 of them. Of those, 10 schools hold some sort of dance.

Williams said there are no district policies governing such dances, and there have been no issues with the dances in the past. He doesn’t believe dance cards are extremely common in the district — many of the schools do line dances, so dancers don’t have a partner. In other cases, they just line up the boys and girls across from each other and pair them up.

“There are lots of variations,” Williams said. “And for a lot of them, if they do hold a dance, it’s something that has become a tradition that parents really like.”

Sixth-grade dances appear less popular in the Ogden School District. Spokeswoman Skyler Pyle said she contacted administrators at all 14 elementary schools in the district, and none of the six who replied said they host dances.

Pyle said there are no district rules about elementary school dances in Ogden.

The real value in the Kanesville Elementary incident, according to Ollilainen, is that it’s the perfect opportunity to have a dialogue with children about some important concepts.

“It doesn’t have to be about sex, but I think the kids can figure it out on their own,” she said. “We’re training children to do something that later on we expect them not to do. It’s this whole idea of ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘no.’”

Ollilainen believes this is a teachable moment that could easily be missed. She says the children themselves will make meaning out of these dance cards, but this is an opportunity for adults to lead the discussion on concepts like “How does it feel to be rejected?”

But she also encourages the adults to listen to the children.

“Fast-forward another five years, and they’re going to be dealing with this same issue as teenagers,” Ollilainen said. “And those lessons, there aren’t too many of them in this culture. We tend to avoid conversations about dealing with consent, and the outcome is that young people are confused.”

Ollilainen says she doesn’t have a solution to the dance problem, but if there is one, it’s to “have a conversation.”

Findlay points out that the dance requirement wasn’t exclusive to any gender or group, and that the boys couldn’t say no to the girls, either.

“The intent has always been to make it fun and positive for all,” he said.

But he also understands that some adjustments needed to be made.

“We want to be inclusive,” he said, “but also empower students.”

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at Facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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