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Editor's blog: Sexual harassment prevalent in school

As a junior high school student, I still remember trying to dodge the boys known for sneaking up behind you and grabbing your…how to say it in the kindest possible way… rear end, derriere, tush.

Then there was the bra snapping and some antics at early teen parties that really make me wonder whether certain boys known for inappropriate groping are now living life as registered sex offenders. Then there were the labels – being called a “blue nun” one week and something wretched like “slut” the next.

I remember not liking this, but also believing there wasn’t much that could be done about it. You couldn’t exactly tell a teacher.

In fact, I also had a junior high school teacher who did much the same thing. He rubbed female students’ shoulders in social studies class. He coached our girls’ basketball team, leering at us all the while. We mocked him mercilessly rather than tell the principal. Somehow, we already knew tenure would protect him.

AAUW report confirms sexual harassment common in school

With so much of an emphasis on bullying these days, a new report on sexual harassment in schools caught my eye.

Turns out, many young women – and young men – experience far worse forms of sexual harassment at school.

A report released this week by the American Association of University Women found that sexual harassment “pervades the lives of students in seventh through 12th grades.

Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, the most comprehensive, nationally representative research conducted in the past decade on sexual harassment in middle and high schools, found that nearly half of those surveyed said they had been harassed during the 2010-2011 school year.

Of that number, a majority – or 87 percent – said that being harassed had a negative effect on them. Among the responses, one-third said they did not want to go to school as a result of the harassment. Another third said they felt sick to their stomachs.

One key finding reflects my own experiences: Students rarely report being sexually harassed at school. In fact, only about 9 percent of harassed students told a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school about being sexually harassed.

Verbal remarks most common form of harassment

Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) make up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was “far too common,” according to researchers. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means affected nearly one-third of students. And many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace were also sexually harassed in person.

And, while girls are more likely than boys to be sexually harassed (56 percent vs. 40 percent), girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed both in person (52 percent vs. 35 percent) and via text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means (36 percent vs. 24 percent).

This finding confirms previous research showing that girls are sexually harassed more frequently than boys, and that girls’ experiences tend to be more physical and intrusive than boys’ experiences.

The report “is a call to action to students, parents, teachers, and all of us who are concerned about the next generation,” said AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman. “Many students feel sexual harassment is normal behavior, and often victims of sexual harassment in turn victimize other children. It’s a vicious cycle that exacts an enduring emotional toll on students.”

The bad news is – unless you’ve got a school community willing to work on the problem – taking a school-based sexual harassment case to the courts is an uphill battle.

Court cases tough to prove

The courts recognize school liability for peer-to-peer sexual harassment, but the standard for proving a school’s liability is high.

In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1997/ 1999), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that four factors are required for a finding of a Title IX violation: School officials must have actual knowledge; officials with the authority to take remedial action instead show “deliberate indifference”; the harassment must have been severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive; and the harassment must have had the effect of denying the victim’s participation in educational programs or activities.

Rather than just another dose of bad news, however, the AAUW report is loaded with ideas on how to curb this pervasive problem. For instance, creating, publicizing, and enforcing sexual harassment policies and adhering to the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 are some ways schools can bring attention to the issue.

“Our report clearly shows that, in many instances, we are failing to provide the safe environment necessary for our children to succeed,” said Lisa Maatz, AAUW director of public policy and government relations. “Children and their families are too often left to fend for themselves when kids are harassed.”

Ain’t that the truth. But with knowledge, we can make change.

How to stop sexual harassment and help your children

  • Foster feelings of empathy and respect for others in your children.
  • Talk to your children about what healthy friendships and dating relationships look like.
  • Explain what sexual harassment and sexual assault are.
  • Take an interest in your children’s day, their friends, and the activities they’re involved in at school.
  • Encourage your children to know how to stand up for themselves and teach them assertiveness and self- defense.
  • Find out what your school’s sexual-harassment policy is, and make sure your children understand it.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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