Why did the principal of a secondary school in Co Carlow end up on national radio talking about leggings this week?
If you missed, or are confused about this story, here is a short breakdown.
Presentation College Carlow is a mixed school. They have a uniform policy. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, on PE day, students wear their PE uniform to school, which according to the rules, is a black or navy tracksuit bottom pants.
The school noticed that other garments, mainly leggings, were being worn instead, and mostly by the girls.
So the girls from each year were taken aside, and told to stick to the PE uniform rules — tracksuit bottoms.
This is where the story splits.
Some female students were left feeling upset and uncomfortable, after these female-only assemblies. Some students claimed they were told not to wear “tight bottoms for PE as they cannot show off the ‘female anatomy’ as it is distracting”.
A petition was then started online, claiming the above. It now has more than 12,700 signatures.
Social media became ablaze with the story of the banned and “distracting” leggings.
The story was then picked up by local and national media, leading to the school’s principal, Ray Murray, talking to RTÉ’s on Wednesday.
What did he say? He denied all of the claims.
“The only thing mentioned was telling the students to make sure you have a proper uniform on you so that it doesn’t lead to any uncomfortable conversations in relation to your uniform,” he said.
While he denied all claims, crucially he did acknowledge this on : “I do accept that there were some students who were upset maybe after some of the assemblies.
"If a wrong message came through, obviously we don't want that to happen."
This is where the story splinters once again.
Man in authority goes on national radio. Man in authority says claims are not true on national radio. Man in authority says staff has “taken brunt of unsubstantiated rumour” on national radio.
And what happens in the media, on social media, and in the kitchens, classrooms, and workplaces of Ireland?
The girls are belittled, mocked as dramatic, ridiculed for making stuff up, and generally discredited.
The girls are vilified for what happened on social media, blamed for the national response, the furore, the uproar.
The girls caused a scene.
And what’s the lesson here?
Should we hold minors responsible for the response and behaviours of adults on social media?
Even Ray Murray, in his 15 minutes of fame, acknowledged that “some 6th year girls were a bit uncomfortable or a little upset after assembly”.
While he denied the claims that leggings were not allowed because they are distracting for whatever reason, he did acknowledge that students were left upset.
Maybe it was just a case of messy messaging, but young people were left upset and decided to say as much and speak out. Is this illegal? And are they then responsible for how the public behaves in response?
Mr Murray said he feels for his staff who took the brunt of the “unsubstantiated rumour”, but I feel for the girls who were pulled out of class, felt uncomfortable for whatever reason, did something about it, and then were vilified by the baying mob online.
Last week, when some sick individuals leaked intimate photos of Irish girls as young as 14, the public was quick to blame those girls too.
Why do we blame those with least power in a situation?
In a school setting, who is the adult? The teacher or the student? In a school setting, who is responsible for clear, unambiguous messaging? The teacher or the student? In a school setting, who is responsible for ensuring that sensitive topics like bodies are discussed with care? The teacher or the student?
Was RTÉ radio the best place to address the concerns of the students or to damage control the reputation of the school?
Were students in a position to listen to their principal’s clear explanation at the time or were they in class?
In some media reports, there were unquoted sources talking about the perils of social media for schools and principals.
Fears that things will get distorted, that someone will get the wrong end of the stick.
If you’re privileged enough to be working with children in 2020, you’d really want to make sure your messaging is crystal clear, so that they don’t get the wrong end of the stick. You’re the adult, make sure the stick is pristine, leave room for questions about the stick, and most importantly, leave our young people feeling they can come back to you to talk about the stick.
Because if anyone knows about “unsubstantiated rumours” spreading like wildfire it is our young people, where the illegal leaking of intimate images is their daily battlefield. They are growing up in the world we have created for them. We are responsible for that. And we are responsible to help them navigate it, not blame for them the storms and squalls of social media.
While the entire leggings saga is under investigation and a report is being prepared for the Department of Education, let’s assume there was no body-shaming going on here as Mr Murray claimed.
But let’s listen to the girls and students too. We can listen to multiple perspectives without belittling, discrediting or blaming anyone.
“While there is merit in challenging adults who are quick to judge on social media I find it hard to understand why the girls became vilified [online] for speaking out. A narrative quickly emerged [online] that presented them as little girls being dramatic," said Adrienne Wallace, a local politician in Carlow who has spoken to several parents about this issue.
Is the onus on children to protect the reputation of their school or is the onus on the adults who run the school to speak clearly to their students about sensitive issues such as one's body?
Let’s listen to and respect our young people, and stop blaming them for the behaviour of trigger-happy Twitter users.
Because if history has taught us anything in Ireland, it is crucially important that our young people are listened to.