In Overland Park, Kan., students don’t talk about sexism, says rising senior Rachel Pickett. At Blue Valley West High School, Pickett’s story on sexism within the debate team spurred controversy among the student body, with one student setting fire to the issue with her story on the cover.
“Debate is a cornerstone of pride at BV West with impressive accolades and a reputation for excellence. The team, led by coach Arianne Fortune, includes an eclectic collection of some of the brightest minds in the school. It is hard to imagine that the team struggles to define ‘sexism’ as a group,” Pickett’s story began.
Female debaters who felt devalued on the team tipped off Pickett last school year. They directed her attention to an inappropriate direct message, exclusive Dropbox and a heated group chat.
At an out-of-town tournament in 2015, an underclassman male debater direct-messaged a female competitor from another school over Twitter.They were paired to debate against each other in the tournament. The Blue Valley student – prompted by an upperclassman on the team, Bijan Esfandiary – messaged the female that if she sent him nude photos of herself, he would concede the debate round.
Esfandiary said he was joking and that the underclassman, who was not named in the story because he is a minor, took him seriously.
After the female competitor reported the male student, he was barred from one debate tournament, had to write an apology letter and serve detentions. Esfandiary became an assistant coach of the debate team and the underclassman who sent the message is still competing on the team.
“They were valuing her nudes over winning the round,” a female debater told Pickett. “They were saying, ‘I’d rather see your nudes than win the round and debate you as an equal.’”
Pickett also found that the team usually compiles evidence or “cut cards” for tournament preparation into Dropbox folders for older and younger members. However, another Dropbox folder existed exclusively for six males on the team. When female varsity debaters asked to contribute and gain access to the folder, the boys declined to share and Fortune, the debate coach, defended them.
“I don’t think that if a young lady came to practice, contributed and wanted to be at that level and was practicing at that level and working at that level, I don’t think that they would exclude her,” Fortune said to Pickett. “I wouldn’t allow them to.”
But female debaters who compete at the highest level didn’t agree with Fortune’s comment, according to Pickett, especially when even underclassman males had access to the folder.
A group chat with 14 male and female members of the team also created a rift. Team members who Pickett spoke to showed her messages in the thread, with male team members using derogatory terms like “bitch” and making fun of female members who were upset.
Even with these divides in the team, Pickett found that the coach generally stood with the male debaters and believed that some female competitors were to blame.
“This ax to grind is coming from people that are toxic to a certain extent,” Fortune told Pickett. “They’re negative and other people pick up on that. Just because people that are disgruntled make a statement doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the truth.”
Pickett spoke to Active Voice Community Manager Shine Cho on her experiences covering this story.
How did you get this story idea?
This past year our editor-in-chief was a female on the debate team, so this past November when we were at the National Journalism Convention, she was talking to us about how divided the debate team was among gender lines. We decided to shelve the story idea just because we felt like it was a conflict-of-interest since she was our editor-in-chief. We waited until the end of the year when she was no longer in charge and that’s when we decided to do the story, but we really had no idea how extensive and how many problems there were on the team. We were really surprised when we were doing the interviews.
Where did you begin? How did you start gathering your information?
I started with interviewing the female debaters who I had heard of from my editor-in-chief who had the most complaints about the team. They would start mentioning names in the interviews and I would write them down. I ended up interviewing around a dozen people on the team with different perspectives. It was kind of a rabbit hole. Each time I was interviewing someone, it led to more information and more things I had to look into but it was really fun.
How did you get in contact with the debate coach to ask about what was going on?
I emailed her that I wanted to interview her and she seemed pretty open to the idea. We were setting up different times and it didn’t end up working out, so we ended up just going into her room one day. We had a 45 minute conversation. The interview was really interesting. I felt like she came in with an agenda. I think she had a lot of different tactics to scare me into stop writing the story, but I think I was pretty good at identifying what she was trying to do and not letting her get away with it. But it was a great lesson in “Interviewing 101” into, like, identifying what [the subject] wants to get out of the interview and how to get them to tell you the most honest answers.
Were you surprised when the debate coach agreed to go on the record?
Oh my gosh, yes. The whole process – I was shocked because I honestly didn’t think anyone would talk to me but pretty much everyone was willing to go on the record about the story, which was surprising to me because, for a lot of people, I don’t know if that was in their best interest. But I was really lucky with the amount of people who were willing to go on the record.
Why do you think that they were?
I honestly don’t know. I’ve thought about that a lot, and I genuinely don’t know why they went on the record. I think they probably didn’t realize how much the story was going to uncover with the team.
What’s changed since the story?
It’s kind of hard to tell because you don’t always see what’s going on behind closed doors, but as far as we can tell, nothing has changed. Nothing substantial has come out of this so far.
What was the reaction or change you were hoping for?
I don’t think I had a clear motivation or reaction that I really wanted. I think I wanted the female debaters’ complaints to be heard and valued because I feel like they had valid complaints that they were speaking up about but no one was really listening to them. I think that was the extent of what I wanted.
What was it like the day the story went live?
Most of the reaction was positive, but of course, whenever you have sexism on the cover of your newspaper or in the title, there are going to be people automatically turned off. We had a lot of [people post on their] Snapchat stories. One person burned the paper on their Snapchat story.
How do students talk about sexism on your campus?
Honestly, it doesn’t come up a lot. Our school is a really good school. We live in a really good area in a really good district, so we really don’t have a lot of huge problems that are glaring. We live in a pretty good area where these problems – obviously they affect us – but they’re not super obvious, so it’s not something we talk about a lot.
What are some of the subtle ways you notice sexism on campus?
I don’t think I would have noticed it before but throughout the interviews I could see it in the guys’ responses and how they talked about the issues and questions I brought up. It was frustrating because I would ask them questions about things the female debaters said and they would keep pushing back on the questions, like they didn’t value at all what the female debaters said. And I don’t know if that’s a larger problem that extends outside of the debate team.
How do you think dialogue about sexism on campus can happen?
I think it’d be great if we can do it through the paper. The problem is that it’s such a combative issue and we live in a very conservative area, so if you bring up something like sexism, a lot of people are going to be turned off and don’t want to talk about it and think it’s ridiculous. [In our area], sexism is just not something that people are willing to have an open dialogue where both sides are allowed to express their feelings and that we can actually put those feelings into account of a larger issue. But I don’t know why that is. I’m guessing it’s probably the history of it being brushed aside.
What’s your advice to other high school students who want to cover sexism on campus?
I would definitely say that these stories are important to cover, and I think a lot of people shy away from them because it’s going to be easy to make mistakes when you’re interviewing a bunch of people and it’s a topic that’s super controversial. I made so many mistakes while writing this piece. There were people I should have interviewed who I didn’t. There were times I was too combative in interviews. There were times where I didn’t go hard enough. But I think as long as you’re trying your absolute hardest to represent the larger issue or the people in your piece fairly, and in the most honest way you can, you have to go after these big pieces. Because they’re so important to your community and people who have issues with sexism, racism, anything like that, their voices aren’t being heard, so it’s so important that as a news outlet you’re giving them a place for their voices to be heard.
Have you written about sexism on your campus? Submit it to ActiveVoice@splc.org.