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Oakland Teacher Turns #MeToo Experience Into Lesson For Students

Sonia Lee is a special education teacher who lives in Oakland. She shared the following story as part of KQED’s survey about sexual harassment in California. The California Report Magazine is airing some of these first-person stories as part of a series called “#UsToo.”

It was my first year as a special education teacher. I was already very stressed about knowing all the laws and doing everything correctly, and the administrator that I worked for, he was a bully.

I felt like I was walking on eggshells with him. He wanted me to know that he had control over me. So any e-mails I sent, I had to cc him on, any phone calls that I got went through him first.

The first time that I really felt uncomfortable was when I was just leaving my classroom one day, and I was in the hallway. He came up behind me and gave me a massage on my shoulders and just said, “Oh you shouldn’t be working so late…you’re putting in a lot of hours.” And [he] was just massaging my shoulders, and I just thought, ‘This is really uncomfortable, and it’s not appropriate. But does this mean that I’m on his good side? Will this really make my life here at work easier?’

Another time, he pulled me into his office one morning and asked me about my underwear: if I wear thongs or underwear. That was really the tipping point for me to go to my union representative. When I asked my union if I could file [a complaint] anonymously, they said I couldn’t because if I wanted to proceed with it my name would be shared. So I didn’t file anything.

I was really fearful of him and how he could make my work life harder. And he was already making it so stressful for me. I was getting hives all over my body just from stress and anxiety. After I left that school, the next year the teachers had come together and filed a complaint against that principal. He ended up resigning. After finding that out, I felt a lot of shame that I did not step forward and didn’t have the courage to go through with my complaint.

As a teacher, given this experience, I feel like I’ve been given a really positive opportunity to teach children to respect each other, to change this whole culture of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and any kind of environment. I want them to grow up knowing it’s not OK.

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