Sexual Harassment In Our Schools

Audrey Fisch

By Audrey Fisch

“They had a picture of my face attached to an animal having sex and had the words WHO’S NEXT written next to it, referring to my girlfriend.” This was the experience of a 12th grade boy.

“A boy tried to unzip my pants.” This was the experience of an 8th grade girl.

With students’ own words and powerful statistics, a new report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, produced by the American Association of University Women, makes clear that sending our children to school often means sending them into a hostile environment where sexual harassment is the norm.

Nearly half (48 percent) of the nationally representative group of students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year. This latest study builds on previous research by AAUW that found that more than 80 percent of students reported that they had been sexually harassed at least once over the course of their years in school.

And after the students experience harassment, what do they do, to whom do they turn?

Only 9 percent reported the incident to a guidance counselor, teacher or other adult at the school. One student cited in the report said, “I can’t tell teachers; they don’t care.”

And what are the consequences for these kids? Students reported not wanting to go to school, feeling sick to their stomachs, and finding it hard to study. Significant numbers of students who experienced harassment reported trouble sleeping, staying home from school and stopping activities or sports. Some found it necessary to switch schools.

As the young people’s stories make clear, sexual harassment is a reality for both girls and boys, although girls are more likely to be harassed. Harassment occurs across income levels and ethnic groups, but the negative effects are greater for students of color who disproportionately get into trouble at school or stay home from school as a result of being harassed.

For many of us, these stories are nothing new, even if some of the methods of harassment, like cyber rumors, are. Many of us experienced sexual harassment in school ourselves. It is, unfortunately, the familiar texture of growing up in the United States.

So, should we resign ourselves to this reality? Is a hostile learning environment just the American way? Should our young people continue to ignore the harassment, continue to tell no one, continue to suffer in silence, and simply learn to develop thicker skins? Is dealing with sexual harassment just one of those things they need to “learn” in school?

Recent scandals remind us that sexual harassment in the workplace is still an ugly reality. When we ignore it in our schools, are we training another generation of harassers?

The AAUW report offers hope and some surprising insights about the harassers, many of whom thought their actions were “no big deal” or “funny.” Imagine if these kids were educated so as to understand that sexual harassment is neither.

It could easily happen.

Imagine if each of us took the new AAUW report, full of promising practices and student suggestions for reducing harassment, into our local school. Imagine if parents, teachers, coaches, counselors and administrators worked to educate our young people about sexual harassment.

Then, perhaps, the climate might improve — not just in our schools but also in our workplaces.

As one 11th-grade boy advised in the report, the best way to reduce sexual harassment in schools is for students to “take a stand against the person doing the harassing and not let them get away with it. If more students would fight for their rights instead of being scared, stand up to the abuser, life would go a lot smoother.”

Surely his words apply to more than just the students in school. Let’s not leave him standing there alone.

Fisch is Professor of English and Elementary and Secondary Education at New Jersey City University and a member-at-large of the American Association of University Women.

Copyright (C) 2011 by American Forum. 12/11

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