When Katie Raphaelson was in high school, she “lived, breathed and slept” debate.
In 2016, the elite high school debater wasn’t yet disillusioned with the debate community. She was 15, and her world was dominated by a desire to excel in the activity, which meant long, frequent team practices, traveling on the weekends to compete, and dreaming of making it to the Tournament of Champions.
She was just becoming well-acquainted with the regular group travel that competing in local and national tournaments required. Going to these tournaments was social and energizing ― and just one example of how competitive debate can take over your life when you’re a teenager.
At one particular tournament requiring an overnight stay ― which was not uncommon — Raphaelson’s teammate, a girl, wanted to set up Raphaelson with Eric, a boy from another school whom HuffPost is not identifying by his real name. Two of Raphaelson’s female teammates were sharing a hotel room at the tournament; Eric and another boy came to the room that night. A night hang turned into a sleepover, and Raphaelson says she ended up in a bed with Eric.
Raphaelson says her teammates, the other boy and Eric all knew that she openly identified as asexual, but that Eric still made unwanted sexual advances toward her. She says he repeatedly grabbed her hand even after she pulled it away, and then physically yanked her face around and forced her to kiss him.
The next morning, shaken, upset and exhausted, Raphaelson says the teammate who wanted to set her up with Eric told her not to tell their coach. So she ended up telling a friend from a different debate team that she had had “a weird experience” with Eric the night before and wasn’t sure if it had been consensual. Raphaelson says she was vague about what had happened but remembers explicitly saying she wasn’t raped.
But according to Raphaelson, that friend told her own coach that Raphaelson had been raped, and the coach called the police. (The coach who Raphaelson says contacted the authorities declined to comment, citing student privacy concerns.) Raphaelson says a police officer arrived at the tournament and questioned her about what had happened.
“I didn’t know how to verbalize it, because I kind of told myself it’s not that bad,” Raphaelson said. “You didn’t get raped. You’re fine. But I was very obviously not OK.” She also said she didn’t want to mess things up for Eric because he had been doing well in the tournament.
Raphaelson is not certain whether an official report was filed, but she did not hear again from the police officer she spoke to that day.
When Raphaelson got home, she was plagued with such severe anxiety that she barely ate for two weeks. She told HuffPost that the incident and its aftermath left her with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Raphaelson, who is now a debate judge and coach, sees her experience as part of a fundamentally broken culture within the high school debate community.
This is partly what brought her to Nina Potischman, 21, a former Hunter College High School debater who had befriended Raphaelson when they were both coaching high school debate in California. This summer, Potischman, Raphaelson and six others created the Speech & Debate Stories Instagram account, which has collected and published more than 350 anonymous allegations of sexual violence, harassment, racism, homophobia and predatory behavior within the debate community.
The people behind the account have also been pushing the National Speech and Debate Association to make specific policy changes to protect current and future high school debaters.
HuffPost has spoken to 11 former high school debaters — all of whom are deeply passionate about the activity, and many of whom have gone on to coach debate or compete at the collegiate level — who describe a community culture that tacitly allows sexist and racist abuses to go unchecked.
And at its worst, it empowers abusive leaders and encourages such behaviors. They point to the activity’s exclusionary nature and its lack of clear, centralized governing structures as reasons that things haven’t changed, even as Americans have spent nearly three years in a national dialogue about sexual abuse and racism.
These young people, all of whom are between the ages of 19 and 26, want to see competitive high school debate get its Me Too moment — a moment that they feel is long overdue. They want to see a real, sustained reckoning occur at all levels of the activity, and they want the leadership bodies that do exist to make clear, concrete changes to keep the most vulnerable members of the debate community safe.
In a lengthy statement to HuffPost, Nicole Wanzer-Serrano, the director of development and diversity, equity, and inclusion at the NSDA, and J. Scott Wunn, the organization’s executive director, said they “take seriously any allegation of intimidation, racism, harassment, or bullying at our competitions.”
“We believe that speech and debate can empower students to speak out against these injustices, which is why we have sought ways to empower victims to share their stories with the proper authorities so they can be addressed,” they said. They told HuffPost that they “encourage survivors to report to the appropriate individuals so that their situations could be addressed and could lead to removing bad actors from our communities. If an incident is reported at an NSDA-sanctioned event, we have processes in place to review and take appropriate action.”
Welcome To Debate World
For those uninitiated to the world of competitive debate, it’s a year-round activity that forms the social backbone of many debaters’ high school experiences. Debaters compete as individuals or in two-person units within a larger high school team. These teams send debaters to local and national tournaments throughout the school year, and competitive debaters often attend debate camps during the summer.
“It’s hard to explain just how deep-seated debate is within the psyche of any prominent high school debater,” said Katie Hughes, 23. “But basically it becomes your entire life.”
Carolyn, a former debater and coach who asked that her last name not be published, likened being an elite debater to being on a very intense sports team.
“Your team becomes your social circle,” she said. “I’d be away almost every weekend and I’d have practice three times a week and not get home until 9 p.m. My whole social network was people from debate, and a lot of my friends were people at other schools who did debate. There’s this weird connection that’s hard to explain to other people.”
It is also important to understand just how decentralized the structure of the activity is — and how big of a role that the lack of organization plays in allowing abusive behavior to go on without recourse.
There are four major national high school speech and debate organizations, which act as very loose governing bodies. The National Speech and Debate Association, or NSDA, is widely considered the largest and most influential on the national circuit. “It’s the closest we have to a governing body in debate, even though it’s not really a governing body as it currently operates,” Potischman said, explaining why it’s the organization the creators of the Speech & Debate Stories account are focusing on. Wanzer-Serrano and Wunn told HuffPost that the NSDA primarily provides organizational support, educational resources and training for 3,500 middle and high school debate teams.
Debate teams spend the bulk of their time preparing for tournaments, which double as social activities for participants. Tournaments operate at the local and national level and can be hosted by a variety of institutions, including national organizations and schools. For example, the University of Kentucky hosts the Tournament of Champions, an annual national high school debate tournament that is widely considered the championship of the national circuit. To qualify for the TOC, debaters need at least two bids, which they can earn by placing highly in specific national and regional tournaments throughout the year.
There is currently no centralized formal accreditation process to become a debate coach or tournament judge, which means that many coaches and judges are simply elite debaters who recently graduated from high school. The NSDA announced in August that it had created a committee to develop a comprehensive accreditation process for tournament judges.
The former high school debaters who spoke with HuffPost all expressed how entrenched they were in the community at one time. The all-encompassing nature of high school debate makes it particularly tricky to acknowledge and report abuse.
A lot of debaters “join because they don’t feel exactly accepted in their high school,” Carolyn said. “So [debate] is kind of your outlet and your safe place. And then that safe place is no longer safe.”
‘Not Uncommon’: Harassment And Assault Allegations In Competitive Debate
Many of the people HuffPost interviewed said the cultural issues within the high school debate community make debaters — especially women and gender nonconforming people — vulnerable to sexual harassment, sexual assault or rape. They all say that the diffuse nature of the community and its various leadership bodies makes it hard to report these incidents in a safe way, and nearly impossible to ensure lasting consequences for people who behave in predatory ways.
To protect the people who spoke to HuffPost from legal retaliation — something that many of them expressed fear about — we will not be naming any alleged assailants.
Victims of sexual harassment and abuse often encounter barriers to reporting. But there can be an extra layer of difficulty when the harassment or assault is being perpetrated by people who hold power, either formally (judges, coaches, camp instructors) or informally (debaters who are highly successful).
“There’s a huge hero-worshiping culture that surrounds the most successful debaters,” Potischman said. “They’re immune to criticism in a lot of ways. And I think they feel empowered to do whatever they want.”
Raphaelson said this was widely known as “Good Debater Syndrome,” or GDS for short. “A lot of men who do well in debate will use their success [to get access to women],” she said. “And kind of use it to call out other girls to say, ‘Oh, well, I have X amount of bids to the Tournament of Champions, so you should come hang out with me.’”
In 2014, Carolyn attended an overnight tournament. She and one of her teammates, who was considered a “rising star,” stayed in a hotel block that had been organized by the tournament hosts. Carolyn said she didn’t know this boy particularly well, but she had been told that he was specifically “interested in East Asian girls.” Carolyn was 16 years old at the time and barely 100 pounds. The boy, who is white, was 15, but more than 6 feet tall.
Carolyn, who is now 23, says this boy texted her one night during the tournament and asked her to meet him at his hotel room. He didn’t say why he wanted her there, and she didn’t ask. When she arrived at the room, she says, he ushered her inside, immediately turned off the lights, and led her to a bed.
“He told me to get on my knees, and then he pulled his pants down and said, ‘You need to go down on me,’” she said. Carolyn was fairly sexually inexperienced at the time and told him she didn’t know what that meant. He pushed her head down toward his penis, and she did what he told her to do.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Carolyn said. “I just felt really small. I was so young and small.”
A few months later, Carolyn told a close male friend on her team about the encounter but didn’t go into detail. When she was in college, she told her best friend. HuffPost spoke to both of these friends, and they each confirmed that Carolyn had told them about the incident.
She ultimately chose not to report the incident because she feared that she would face repercussions since her assailant was “really good at debate” and from a wealthy family of lawyers. She was also afraid that she would not be allowed to participate in debate if her coach told her parents what had happened. “I’m Chinese and I come from a very strict family,” Carolyn said. “So it was a lot for them to allow me to travel every weekend and help pay for the tournament.”
Looking back, she feels certain that race and class played a role in her initial reaction to the incident. “I didn’t say no or fight,” she said. “I didn’t feel like a survivor.”
This incident and the casual racism that Carolyn says she faced in debate fundamentally shaped the way she feels about her entire time in high school. “I don’t have any memories of, like, prom,” she said. “My experience is so colored by a few sets of experiences that really just made me think so negatively about my high school experience.”
There’s a huge hero-worshiping culture that surrounds the most successful debaters. They’re immune to criticism in a lot of ways. And I think they feel empowered to do whatever they want.
Nina Potischman, co-creator of the Speech & Debate Stories Instagram account
Nicole Nave, a former high school and college debater who is now the executive director of the Women’s Debate Institute, an organization dedicated to facilitating a more inclusive environment for women and gender minorities within speech and debate, said instances of sexual harassment and assault within the competitive debate community are “not uncommon.”
“Coaches actually harass you, coaches and judges sexually harass kids,” Nave said. “And when you speak out, you really pay the price.” Multiple people told HuffPost that they have faced litigation or the threat of litigation for speaking up about alleged abuses.
Nave’s own experiences, in both high school and college, have driven her to want to make competitive debate a safer activity. In 2014, when Nave was a 19-year-old college freshman, she went to a party during a tournament at which she was debating. According to Nave, most of the party attendees were under the legal drinking age, but two older men supplied alcohol for them. One of the men had been a judge at the debate tournament, and Nave says he raped her when she was intoxicated.
“I did not report it to my team because he told me that he had videos and was willing to show everyone in the community. And that I was his new girlfriend for the rest of the debate season,” Nave said. “So for three months at tournaments, he would text me and tell me when we were going to have sex, and tell me what to do.”
That summer, Nave worked at a debate camp with LaToya Williams Green, a woman Nave considered to be a mentor. Green was about to become the debate director at a college in Kansas, and during the summer, Nave told her what had happened at the party. Nave told HuffPost that Green helped her report the alleged rape to the debate director at the alleged assailant’s university.
Nave says the man confessed to having a consensual sexual relationship with her but denied raping her or providing alcohol to students under the legal drinking age. Both Nave and Green recall him being removed from the university’s debate program, and according to public records, he does not appear to have judged in a debate tournament since 2014.
Green, who is now the director of debate at Cal State Fullerton and a board member of the WDI, told HuffPost that her exact memory of how the reporting occurred is a bit fuzzy because incidents like this one are not uncommon. However, she does remember the removal of Nave’s alleged abuser happening “covertly and discretely,” which she sees as part of the larger issue.
“These guys get to be informally accosted,” Green said, which allows abusers to hop between programs and tournaments fairly easily, even when consequences are levied by one program. She said this quiet way of dealing with harmful behavior ultimately “allows the ability to replicate the behavior.”
College debate is run separately from high school debate, and not governed by the NSDA. However, because recent graduates and collegiate debaters so often become high school coaches and judges, problems at the high school level that go unchecked can come back again.
Debaters who display abusive behavior in high school can go on to staff camps, as well as coach and mentor their former teammates and future generations of debaters. And former high school debaters who have seen discrimination and abuse firsthand, like Nave and Green, see it as part of their responsibility to protect the kids coming through the activity now.
“You go back and you go coach your high school team, you mentor high school students, you go do private tutoring,” Green said. “And a lot of that work, especially when you deal with women and feminized students, trans students, queer students, deals with, ‘OK, we got the arguments down. Now close your laptop and let’s have a real conversation … so you can be prepared to defend yourself and protect yourself, not just physically but also argumentatively, socially. Let us get you ready.’”
Green doesn’t think cis white male coaches are necessarily having those same conversations with the cis white male debaters they work with. “Which, of course,” she said, “is a microcosm of what we see in the real world.”
Looking back, Nave sees how key it was to have older people in the community believe her when she disclosed allegations of abuse. She also says it helped that she was already out of high school and had a greater understanding of what had happened to her.
“With kids [who are in high school debate], they don’t know … how to even explain what’s happening,” Nave said. “A lot of times they don’t even know there’s something wrong that has occurred.”
Coaches actually harass you, coaches and judges sexually harass kids. And when you speak out, you really pay the price.
Nicole Nave, executive director, Women’s Debate Institute
The people interviewed for this piece also told HuffPost that some community leaders, including judges and coaches, engage in abusive behavior.
Kathleene Humphries, 21, recalled being sexualized by a tournament judge, who was a coach at another school, when she was a sophomore in high school. (Humphries now coaches debate in Ohio.) When she was 15, several of her friends decided to observe her participating in a debate round one day. She was wearing a shirt she loved — purple with a gem on it — that her mother had given her. She felt both confident and pretty.
During the round, Humphries says the other school’s coach was staring at her chest so noticeably that both her debate partner and her friends who were watching commented on it later. She says her debate partner, a male high school student, joked that they probably won the round because the coach had found her sexually attractive.
“When we won the round, I felt entirely disgusted because I didn’t even know if it was because of me being a good debater or because this 20-[something]-year-old person was sexually attracted to a 15-year-old and was making it visibly known,” she said. “It was so obvious that everyone in the room was picking up on it.”
In March 2015, Jon Cruz, a well-known debate coach at The Bronx High School of Science in New York City, was arrested by the FBI for “communicating online and via text message with several minor teenage boys around the country and paying them to send him photographs of themselves, some of which were sexually explicit.” In 2017, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Cruz’s arrest left a lasting impression on the students who knew of him, including several of the former debaters interviewed for this piece. He was prolific within the debate world and, as someone in his 30s, was sort of known as the resident adult in the room.
“I was at a lot of tournaments [during high school], and I could probably count on one hand the number of actual adults — as in 30-plus — that are prominent in this community,” said Marie-Rose Sheinerman, 20, who was involved in debate at Hunter College High School with Potischman. “And one of those adults was arrested for child pornography in 2015.”
‘Debate Is An Exclusionary Activity’
High school debate has long been extolled as an extracurricular activity that can prepare students to be leaders and enhance academic and professional opportunities later on. (Famous former high school and college debaters include Elizabeth Warren, Richard Nixon, Kamala Harris, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Karl Rove, Malcolm X and Antonin Scalia.)
There has been some research that backs up the idea that participating in debate can have a real impact on students. A 2009 study found a positive correlation between participation in competitive speech and standardized test scores. And a 2012 study found that at-risk high school students in the Chicago Public School District who participated in a debate program were three times more likely to graduate from high school than students who did not.
Despite the potential benefits of competitive debate, the former high school debaters HuffPost interviewed said elite debating tends to be dominated by white, financially privileged students. This affects who has access to the boost that involvement in competitive debate can bring and dictates the culture of the debate community.
One factor that contributes to the marginalization of certain groups from the get-go is that competitive debate requires a substantial amount of money. Teams and individual students need to be able to pay for tournament registration fees, travel to tournaments, accommodations, and summer camps. Depending on the location of the school, just going to one national tournament can cost as much as $1,000 per student. Although students can sometimes find funding through outside sources such as team grants, individual families or school endowments usually end up paying the majority of fees — meaning schools and families with greater resources are more likely to be able to participate in competitive speech.
“It makes me sad that more people don’t have access to debate,” said Carolyn, adding that she was only able to participate in high school because of heavy subsidization. “There [are] a lot of private schools [and] all-boys schools that compete. I feel like if there were more people with different backgrounds, the arguments that we would be having in the tournament themselves would look different.”
Carolyn described the way certain debate topics — like “Should we have a living wage?” — can easily become fraught when most debaters are looking at the question as a theoretical thought experiment and others see it as deeply personal.
“When people say, ‘Hey, we shouldn’t have a living wage’ or, ‘People who make a minimum wage, they don’t deserve certain things,’ then I think of my mother who makes minimum wage,” Carolyn said. “And I think, ‘Hey, that’s not right.’”
The lack of socioeconomic, racial and gender diversity can prove particularly harmful to debaters of color, according to Nave.
“Debate is an exclusionary activity that creates lines, especially for Black women, that are extremely dangerous,” Nave said.
She said the lack of racial diversity creates an environment where debaters of color experience higher levels of tone-policing and harassment. The former high school debater, now 26, coached four of the six Black girls who qualified for the annual Tournament of Champions in 2019.
Nave says she has witnessed numerous instances of casual racism, both personally and against her students. During one tournament, she said, a group of white debaters was caught sending group texts about a Black student, mocking her and referring to her as “aggressive” and “manly”-looking. At another tournament, she said, a coach and his students were making fun of her student’s inability to pronounce French philosopher Michel Foucault’s name correctly. “They were laughing at her and saying that she didn’t know how to talk and that they were certain that she was going to lose this debate,” Nave said.
Carolyn said she was called “China lady” during debate competitions and heard other students make racist comments about the hair of her best friend, who is a Black woman. “I grew up in an all-Asian community, so I feel like the only time that I really felt conscious of my race and my gender was when I was at a debate tournament,” Carolyn said.
On the Speech & Debate Stories Instagram account, debaters have shared stories about experiencing transphobia and homophobia, including being dinged by judges for bringing up the LGBTQ+ community in their arguments and being harassed with violent, anti-queer language by other students without consequence.
Sophia Dal Pra, 18, said she had been called a “bitch” during tournaments and told that her arguments were “too emotional.” At one tournament, she recalls male debaters dismissing her and her teammate. “Oh, we’re just debating some girls,” Dal Pra remembers them saying.
“If you’re passionate during a round and you’re a man, you’re passionate,” Sheinerman said. “If you’re a woman, you’re bitchy and aggressive and annoying.”
This dynamic is well-known among debaters who are women and gender minorities. In 2019, Ella Schnake won the National Speech & Debate Tournament Championship in the Program Oral Interpretation category with her 13-minute spoken word performance, “Debate Like A Girl.” The video of that performance has since gone viral.
In that piece, Schnake calls out the 4:1 ratio of male to female debaters at the national tournament and Tournament of Champions. “As a society, our expectations for females in public speaking put women in a double bind,” Schnake says in her performance. “Either conform to societal expectations of submission and lose credibility, or demonstrate intensity and be labeled too aggressive. This unwinnable bias is so deeply ingrained in our culture that we have often become blind to its consequences, reflected in countless reports of harassment toward young female debaters.”
Hughes sees debate simply as “a very toxic microcosm of the general masculinity that presents itself in society.” And just as other industries needed their Me Too moments, so too does competitive debate.
The debaters HuffPost spoke to said this toxicity can contribute to a culture that pushes women, gender minorities and people of color out before they even get a chance to reach the most elite levels, leaving those who do stay feeling like it’s their job to fix a broken system.
“When I left the activity, [other female coaches told me], ‘Oh, it’s your job as a woman, as a woman of color, to stay in the activity because you grew up without role models and it’s important that you stay,’” Carolyn said. “So I ended up staying, but after two years I got really burnt out. It’s hard because it’s not my obligation to fix everything, [but] I felt a lot of pressure to.”
‘Literally Anyone Can Start A Debate Camp’
Another aspect of the high school debate community that organizers say is in need of reform are debate camps. These camps range from bigger institutions that are well-known within the community and have documented track records of producing champions, to small upstarts launched by groups of young people. Camps, which are often hosted at universities, generally run two- to three-week programs, though they can go as long as seven or eight weeks. Some camps have commuter options, but students who participate tend to stay overnight for the duration of the session.
When Potischman was a rising sophomore during the summer of 2014, she attended a debate camp. A well-known rising senior, whom we will call John, approached her during camp and complimented her hair. He later sent her a series of DMs over Facebook Messenger that HuffPost has reviewed. In them, he asked her to come to his room (“wanna chill later tonight? im in room 416”).
Over the course of the following year, John continued to message Potischman at tournaments. In a set of DMs from January 2015 reviewed by HuffPost, John interjected with commentary about Potischman’s looks while they were discussing a debate round: “the odd thing about the heat of competition is not looking your opponent in the eye,” he wrote to her, “which sucked in our round because I love your eyes.”
“I felt really uncomfortable, but wasn’t sure if I could say anything because he was this huge figure,” Potischman said. “And then I found out that he’d done that to every woman in the community.”
Potischman said this same person had sent similar messages to other young female debaters. HuffPost has seen three other sets of DMs that all use similar language and include John complimenting young women on their hair and repeatedly inviting them to his hotel room.
When it comes to hiring camp staffers, Raphaelson and several other former debaters told HuffPost that camps tend to prioritize bids and rankings over a potential coach’s ability to be an ethical leader or effective teacher, which can leave room for abusive behavior to go unchecked.
“The people who get hired at camps are people who are, a lot of the time, white men who get a shit-ton of bids to the Tournament of Champions,” Raphaelson said. “Doesn’t matter if they’re good people. Doesn’t matter if they’re good at coaching. They get hired.”
Jane, who asked HuffPost not to use her real name out of fear of retribution, said she experienced sexual harassment and assault when she worked as a debate camp instructor in 2018. She was the only woman on staff, and told HuffPost that at 19, she was the youngest person working there. During the session, she said the counselors would regularly drink together after they finished with the students.
Jane was under the legal drinking age, but she felt like it would be weird if she declined alcohol when everyone else was drinking. One night, she said, a male staffer began encouraging her to drink more, and at one point, poured alcohol into her glass. She says when she eventually went to the kitchen to get water because she was very intoxicated, the male staffer followed her and proceeded to grope her. At one point, she said, she pulled away from him and said, “No, we’re too drunk.”
“He followed me and started touching me and kissing me,” Jane said. “I was not OK with it. He followed me around for the rest of the night.”
Right after camp ended, a student told Jane that that man had also distributed drugs and alcohol to students on the last night of camp. Jane said she told the camp directors what she had heard about the man giving students drugs and alcohol. That fall, she also told them he had assaulted her.
According to Jane, the directors were both disturbed by these allegations. But they were no longer his employers because camp was over, so they were limited in what they could do. Jane says they assured her that they would call the former staffer and tell him to stop going to tournaments as a judge or coach. Messages the camp directors sent to Jane, which HuffPost has reviewed, indicate that they followed up with various tournament directors to request the man be removed from judging lists.
Because there is no centralized reporting system, camp directors — even those with the best of intentions — can only do so much. They can bar abusive staffers or campers from returning to their camp, but otherwise, they can only ask that those individuals abstain from attending other debate events. The lack of a clear system ― or really, any system at all ― leaves debaters who have witnessed or experienced abuse feeling helpless and frustrated.
According to Jane, the man from camp continued to show up at debate events during the year and was a part of the coaching staff for a prestigious high school as recently as early 2020.
That’s what we’re trying to do with Speech & Debate Stories, and this whole thing, is to finally give people a voice that’s been taken away from them for so long.
Katie Raphaelson, co-creator of the Speech & Debate Stories Instagram account
Debate camps run independently of the NSDA and of each other, and they do not necessarily communicate with each other when hiring and firing. Several former debaters told HuffPost that this structure makes it fairly easy for abusers who get fired from one camp to simply hop over to another ― especially because preference is often given to debaters who are considered particularly elite. (Yet another symptom of the “Good Debater Syndrome” Raphaelson referred to.)
And because debate camps function differently than most traditional summer camps, the American Camping Association accreditation system does not necessarily apply. (The ACA suggests that all camps, regardless of structure or focus, become accredited to signal that they are “fully invested in understanding and implementing policies that reflect industry recognized standards in the health, safety, and risk management of camp operations.”)
The NSDA, which does not operate any debate camps, confirmed to HuffPost that it does not have an accreditation process for camps. Instead, it pointed to the ACA, as well as the colleges and universities that often host these camps.
“There’s no community-wide reporting system,” Potischman said. “Literally anyone can start a debate camp. There’s no way to report a camp for misconduct unless you go to the police.”
This leaves women and members of other vulnerable populations within the debate community to fend for themselves and depend on hearsay to keep themselves safe. Hughes told HuffPost that an informal “whisper network” exists within the debate community that relies on teenage girls expending large amounts of “emotional energy” to report alleged abusers to camp and tournament directors.
“And that’s also problematic,” pointed out Hughes, “because there’s little accountability in that system, too.”
Seeking Change From Within
When Potischman, Raphaelson and other former debaters launched the Speech & Debate Stories account, they knew they wanted to do more than just provide a platform for current and former debaters to share their experiences. They wanted to push for changes that would keep students who were still coming up through the debate community safe.
The NSDA says on its website that the organization “prohibits all forms of harassment and discrimination…based on race, color, religion, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, marital status, citizenship, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, or any other characteristic protected by any applicable federal, state, or local law are prohibited, whether committed by participants, judges, coaches, or observers,” and that “individuals who are found to have violated this policy will be subject to the full range of sanctions, up to and including removal from the tournament premises.”
However, the people behind Speech & Debate Stories say the reality of local and national debate does not match up with the organization’s intent. As the most prominent national body, they want to see the NSDA do more.
Six days after the Instagram account went live, Potischman launched a Change.org petition that calls on the NSDA to revise its guidelines and implement new policies. As of Monday, nearly 3,000 people had signed it.
“The NSDA was developed under circumstances in which debate was centered around schools,” reads the petition. “However, the emergence of prep squads, coaches who are not teachers, national circuit debate camps, and the prevalence of young adults in positions of power demands revision of the NSDA’s current guidelines.”
Specifically, the petition calls on the NSDA to change its code of ethics; create a centralized system for reporting sexual harassment and misconduct that would allow the NSDA to feed reports to schools, camps and prep squads; create a process of accreditation for coaches, judges, tournaments and camps; and form a task force on sexual misconduct.
The debaters behind the petition make it clear that the skills they have learned from debate are what have compelled them to come forward and demand better from their own community: “Through debate, we have learned the skills to acknowledge injustice and to speak out. We, as a community, can do better and advocate for those we have failed.”
These young organizers are fed up with what they see as consistent inaction, both at the national level and at the state and local chapter level.
“It’s not enough to put out statements where they vaguely talk about how they don’t condone any kind of harassment or assault, but then have no policies to protect individuals against that or to rectify a situation once that occurs,” Humphries said.
The NSDA stressed that it had been a short time since it had begun talking with the petition’s organizers, but said it had committed to a few changes, including reviewing and revising the Student Code of Honor and Coach Code of Ethics — though the organization did not specify what revisions would be made. It also highlighted its plan to formalize a judge accreditation process that would make it clear how accreditation could be earned, renewed and revoked.
Nave told HuffPost that the Women’s Debate Institute is working with the NSDA to provide anti-harassment training specific to debate, which the institute has developed based on a Title IX training for American high school campus associations. The training, if implemented, would be mandatory for NSDA employees.
Over the last two months, the creators of Speech & Debate Stories and the NSDA leadership have also been talking. On Aug. 21, the NSDA sent out an email to its members in direct response to the Speech & Debate Stories petition, saying that it would be forming a Judge Accreditation Process Committee and requiring judges to take a course on “protecting students from abuse.”
The email also stated that the NSDA will be building on its 2018 recommendation that all tournaments have a harassment and discrimination policy by encouraging tournaments to have designated equity officers. (The NSDA National Tournament has had equity officers on staff since 2017.)
Potischman sees these steps as a great start, but she and her co-organizers really want to see a centralized system for reporting misconduct. They also want to make sure that accreditation can be taken away if abusive behavior occurs.
Some of this work has been put on hold because COVID-19 has largely eliminated in-person events, but Nave, Potischman and other advocates for equity in debate hope that when students are able to return to more normal debate settings, their work will have made an impact.
Women like Nave and Raphaelson, who had negative experiences during their time as students and are now coaches, see their own continued leadership in the community as a corrective force. They hope that their presence can make young debaters, especially women, gender minorities and debaters of color, feel a bit safer knowing that there are people they can go to if something happens.
“I’ve made an effort to coach a lot of non-male debaters. I’ve put a lot of work into being able to use my voice to try and speak out about these issues,” Raphaelson said. “The only thing I can do now is … try and help other people in the community use their voice.”
“That’s what we’re trying to do with Speech & Debate Stories, this whole thing,” she added, “is to finally give people a voice that’s been taken away from them for so long, and put the power back into our hands.”
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