#MeToo – When Students Sexually Harass Teachers

About Shawnta S. Barnes

Shawnta S. Barnes works in Indianapolis for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township as an elementary library/media specialist and for Marian University as an adjunct professor. Previously, she has served as an elementary and high school literacy coach, a middle and high school English/Language Arts teacher, and K-5 English as a New Language teacher. She is also an education blogger for Indy Education, a publication under the Citizen Education network.

In 2007,  a black woman named Tarana Burke started the original Me Too movement.  The Me Too Movement empowers victims of sexual assault and harassment to speak out in solidarity.  In 2017, the movement gained steam when prominent white women began tweeting #MeToo and speaking out about their own stories of survival.  Time Magazine even named The Silence Breakers as their “Person of the Year.”  Although this has been a watershed moment and we are seeing famous and powerful people’s careers ended because they have sexually assaulted and harassed others, there are still some areas in the #MeToo movement that has yet to come to light and have the same level of importance.

Many times when you hear about sexual misconduct in a school setting, it involves a school employee having inappropriate contact or making comments of a sexual nature to students.  What we don’t talk about are the students who sexually harass teachers.  This is my twelfth year as an educator.  I have taught high school students during student teaching and ninth graders in a 6-9 building, but this year is my first year working at a designated high school as a certified teacher.  Many of my relatives did not support my transition to my current high school role; I teach English part time and coach teachers in literacy during the rest of my day.  Although I am in my mid-thirties, I frequently get mistaken for a student despite the fact that I wear a pants suit almost every day.  My youthful appearance and the incidents that happened to me in the past at two different middle schools where I previously worked made some of my friends and family members wonder if I was asking for more harassment stepping into a high school role.

What we don’t talk about are the students who sexually harass teachers. Click To Tweet

My first year in the classroom was tough.  I taught Honors American Studies (a blend between history and English), regular English, and inclusion English.  I did my best to teach well and manage my classroom.  One day, one of my male students decided to cross the line.  He started repeatedly asking me questions about my nipples.  Not quietly, but loud enough where everyone in my class could hear.  No amount of ignoring him worked.  “Come on Mrs. Barnes.  I want to know if your nipples are really hard right now?  It’s a yes or no question.”  Then, I changed up my strategy.  I stopped ignoring him and replied, “Right now we have an assignment to finish.  That should be your focus.  Do I need to call the office?”  After that, he shrugged and finally did his work.  I felt uncomfortable and mortified.  I was wearing a boring suit and I didn’t understand what led him to act in this manner. Later, I wrote him up and the school suspended him for five days.  

I was the only black teacher working in this suburban school.  This five day suspension sent shock waves through the school.  The gossip aftermath was the worst.  I overheard one student say to another student, “My parents said she probably was asking for it because kids don’t say things like that to teachers unless teachers have invited it.”  At the end of the school year, I decided to leave this school in the suburbs and I have been an urban educator ever since.  Unfortunately, another incident was to come in an urban middle school setting.

A few school years later, another incident occurred. There was a student who many girls had a crush on.  Although he was constantly in trouble, many of our middle school girls would swarm around him.  In my class on several occasions, I would overhear him saying how fine I was or how good I look to other boys.  When I would circulate around the classroom to help students and I passed him, he would lick his lips and wink at me.  I had a few conversations with him in the hall where the video cameras were to explain how inappropriate his behavior was and I also called his home.   After calling home, the behaviors went away or so I thought; he was working up to a big finale.  

Later, when I was reviewing grammar, he started licking his lips at me during the lesson.  I told him to stop or I was going to send him to another room to get himself together.  Instead of stopping, he decided to put his hand inside of his pants and began stroking his penis and making inappropriate comments. “Mrs. Barnes forget Mr. Barnes.  You know you want this.”  During the previous incident I described students chuckled, but during this incident students were in shock and looked as uncomfortable as I felt.  At that point, I sat down my grammar book, picked up the phone and called the office. He was removed from my room and subsequently suspended. This incident ended up being the last straw because he was constantly in trouble.  He didn’t return after his suspension because he was expelled.

Even writing this article isn’t pleasant. Click To Tweet

For both incidents, writing the referral was the worst.  Even writing this article isn’t pleasant.  When you have to sit down and describe how someone (especially a student) has violated you, it is uncomfortable.  You wonder if there was something you could have down differently and it changes how you interact with future students.  My current high school students know I don’t like to be hugged.  They don’t totally get it, but they respect it.  We fist bump, high five and do this weird elbow bump thing, but I choose not to hug my high school students because of how easy it is for someone to suggest you provoked or asked for certain behavior from students.

When I think about the #MeToo movement, I wonder where we have gone wrong in society where men and women feel this behavior is appropriate, where students feel this behavior is okay.  My twins boys are six and my husband and I have discussed the need for having open conversations with them about sexual conduct when they are older, so it is clear what actions are wrong and the consequences if they take certain actions.  No educator should have to put up with sexual harassment from anyone especially a student.  We have to have open dialogues with our youth to stop this behavior while they are young. I believe the adults who are involved in sexual misconduct now probably began back in childhood, possibly in some teacher’s classroom.

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About the Author:

Shawnta S. Barnes works in Indianapolis for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township as an elementary library/media specialist and for Marian University as an adjunct professor. Previously, she has served as an elementary and high school literacy coach, a middle and high school English/Language Arts teacher, and K-5 English as a New Language teacher. She is also an education blogger for Indy Education, a publication under the Citizen Education network.


  1. Janicia Richardson December 18, 2017 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    WOW! What a powerful article! Thank you for continuing to put out necessary topics! I cringe thinking of what you had to go through.

    • Shawnta Barnes December 31, 2017 at 9:41 pm - Reply

      Thanks for your comment Janicia. I hope as we move forward in education, we will find a way to eliminate this behavior from the classroom.

  2. Maria January 19, 2018 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    I too am experiencing this currently and I’m at a point where I want to request a transfer if I have to see this student again. He only got a 3 day suspension and now the whole school I feel knows about it. I don’t know what to do I just feel so embarrassed about the situation.

    • Shawnta S. Barnes April 2, 2018 at 5:08 am - Reply

      Continue to advocate for yourself. It will be difficult to be the best teacher you can be if you feel this way.

  3. Shoshana February 11, 2018 at 1:20 am - Reply

    My first year teaching high school I had a pretty awful incident. I’m curious how often cases of harassment of teachers by students occur.

    I’m not sure how age and race factor into this but I am white and at the time I was 24 years old. The students I taught were mostly African American. I was a typical first year teacher struggling with classroom management.

    A student approach me after class one day to ask about the assignments he was missing. Previously, he had been really poorly behaved and hardly did any work I assigned. I was really excited that he seemed to be making a turnaround. I diligently looked up his numerous missing assignments in my grade book. Just as the last student left the room I noticed he was leaning in a bit too close. I looked up and his penis was out. I’m sure I had a look of horror on my face. He said sorry, tucked it back in his pants, and left the room.

    I immediately went next door to my department chair/mentor. After I awkwardly told her about the incident she marched me over to the campus security office and had me file a police report.

    In the end the child got a 10 day suspension and he was switched to my coworker’s classroom. She was less than thrilled to have him join her class. The boy was already on probation and there was a rumor that he had been kicked out of a previous school for having group sex on campus.

    I’m not sure what else the school should have done in this situation but it certainly didn’t feel like it was handled properly. There ought to be better protocols in place. I wish the child had received intensive psychological help after that episode but I felt so uncomfortable I let the case drop.

    • Shawnta S. Barnes April 2, 2018 at 5:13 am - Reply

      I agree with you about the student receiving some type of counseling. That behavior is not acceptable in our society and without intervention, this child could repeat the actions again.

      I also think it is hard as an educator to press charges against a student. There isn’t a college course titled Pressing Charges Against Students 101 to prepare you on how to deal with these type of situations.

  4. Ann March 20, 2018 at 10:05 pm - Reply

    Thank you for writing this. I am a private music teacher in a large arts academy. I recently had a student that I taught for 3 years expose himself and then rub himself during a lesson. I was shocked and disgusted. I have felt uncomfortable with him for a while and just kept trying to brush it off. I went to my supervisor, the principle etc. I teach many students at the school and my own offices, this happened in my office. I feel like he is getting away with it at the school. Today I passed him in the hall and he smirked at me. I am not more fearful than I was originally. I kept thinking I was to blame or misinterpreting… now I’m worried for my safety and the safety of the other students and staff.

  5. Shawnta S. Barnes April 2, 2018 at 5:17 am - Reply

    You’re welcome. I was hesitant about writing this article, but I’m glad I did. I had heard from so many educators that have had similar stories.

    Your worry and concern is justified. When a student is bold enough to make those type of actions towards an adult, I always worry what type of actions the student might be making towards peers.

  6. Shawnta S. Barnes April 2, 2018 at 5:18 am - Reply

    You’re welcome. I was hesitant about writing this article, but I’m glad I did. I had heard from so many educators that have had similar stories.

  7. P. April 3, 2018 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    You are not alone, Im a second year male teacher and I currently under lawsuit for a female student who harrassed me and other teachers but administration didnt do anything. She and her friends were mad for the assignments given and she accused me of touching now in a legal turmoil. Despite been assaulted 3 times in a year. I never felt safe in that campus. Hopefully everything turns out well. Your article ia empowering thank you for speaking up

    • Debbie Banaian May 21, 2018 at 6:02 pm - Reply

      I wish there was a way to band together. It is so scary to think that our basic rights are being stripped in the middle of broad daylight and the perpetrator doesn’t even have to hide it. In fact one of my perpetrators published it on the internet. One of those boys were rewarded and sent as a role model to our capitol this year. It was humiliating to see his picture plastered. It all came flooding back. I fear too for my physical being and the mental state of these students. The gun crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Good luck to you. I will pray for you and your family

  8. Katherine April 30, 2018 at 8:02 am - Reply

    Thank you for addressing this. Currently, I’m just a secondary social studies ed student at IUPUI, but I’ve dealt with sexual harassment enough in various spheres of my life that I knew I should probably look for strategies on how to handle SH situations before leading a classroom. I know I can’t necessarily be ready for every situation, but having more teachers communicate their experiences and how things were handled by the schools makes me feel more confident, more prepared, and less alone coming into the profession.

  9. Shawnta S. Barnes May 4, 2018 at 3:31 pm - Reply

    Katherine, I glad the stories of other educators are helping you as you continue as a social studies education student at IUPUI. There are aspects of this profession that college doesn’t prepare you to handle.

  10. Silvia May 8, 2018 at 9:34 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this article! I’m facing daily awkward comments from my high school pupils (all boys) and I really dont know what to do anymore. I’m from Italy and the culture here is so different and nobody thinks that I’m complaining about something worthy. The administrations wont listen and so will other collegues.
    People thinks that if they say that Im pretty, I should only be proud, Im not supposed to complain

  11. Stephanie S May 16, 2018 at 2:39 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing–I’m currently dealing with this, but the student is 7. And I’m sure he doesn’t mean anything by it other than that he hates me and my butt is the easiest thing for him to grab and hit. But becuase I’m teaching in China, there’s not much that I can do, and even less tha thte school will do. I have PTSD because of past abuse and I’m afraid I’m going to react instinctively and hurt him one of these times.

  12. Debbie Banaian May 21, 2018 at 3:55 pm - Reply

    I too have been dealing with this for many years. My first REAL incident was when a student stroked himself in the middle of the classroom. I tried to act like it wasn’t shocking thinking he was just looking for a reaction and I told him he needed to get to the group I assigned to him and he had to take his hands from his pants. THIS WAS THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL. He replied, “can I help it if you make me hard” then he proceeded to bend himself over a table and slapped his butt. I sent him out of the room and wrote up the discipline slip after calling the office. His consequence… a 17 minute lunch detention and they sent him back to class. In fact, initially he was just spoken to until I made a HUGE point to say I would not go back to the classroom with this student if he is allowed to do anything without consequence. I indicated that I didn’t feel safe. The principal replied that this had happened secveral times the year before and asked if THIS was how I wanted him to start his new year, implying that this was somehow my fault. Since that incident there have been other emails that my partner received about oral sex, etc that was dealt wtih in a similar fashion. 2 years ago, students who I had 3 years prior hacked into my school mandated website during the school day, during technology class and pretending to be me wrote, ” Hey Kids, tell all your dads I’m a blonde cougar and I want to suck the cum out of their dicks.” In addition to things about my doing illegal drugs, raping kids, and more. This went VIRAL and kids all snapped pictures and of course twitter and snapchat lit up. After 3 days nothing had been done and it was only spreading further. Finally, so sick I had to see my doctor for anxiety medicine. I could no longer teach in front of my class becasue no amount of clothing, so it seemed, could keep me from being vulnerable from what was on their minds. Students in my very own classroom had shared the tweet and were never talked to about it, ever. Nor did they receive a consequence. I had to leave school early that year and I physically or mentally could not bring myself to coming back until January of the following year. In fact, I went to the police station and they refused to let me fill out a police report. Now fast foward 2 years and I find myself in a similar situation with similar consequence. It isn’t fair for anyone. I feel like once struck by lightening you are more apt to be struck again because for wahtever reason people know you are a safe target. Nobody is protecting us and although I’m trying to be strong, I am really at risk and I’m scared, and sick. I am only a few years from being able to retire and I don’t know if I can make it. All these years, and I LOVE teaching and this breaks my heart but sickens me to my deepest core. HOW do I finish and pretend like all of this is okay? My admin is not only detrimental, they are punitive for my having spoken out. They tried to refuse to pay me workmans comp while I was out and then two weeks after winning my case, I received a letter in my file about some students that just didn’t like me. The students had literally NO INCIDENTS to report but had a feeling about me, indicated that I had favorites in class…. I’ve seen lawyers but it seems impossible to really sue the school. Anyone? I need help.

  13. D November 28, 2018 at 10:24 pm - Reply

    It’s crap like this that has lead me to conclude teaching is not the right path for me. Everyone loves to talk trash about teachers, the media loves to cover stories about teachers abusing students but no one covers the reverse or does a damn thing about it. Working in education for three years I’ve had my fair share of disturbing incidents, some funny (an autistic kindergarten child rubbing her lady parts, dealt with by admin and staff contacting home), others mortifying (a group of male students asking about my sex life repeatedly in the middle of class, would not quit), and through it all I’ve tried to see the good. But in an era where everyone thinks we have great benefits and a short work year, that anyone can teach, and any flaw is harshly criticized (even simple things like a photo of drinks with friends during the summer on social media can bring one down), it just isn’t worth it. Take my latest job for example, teaching 9th and 11th grades. These kids didn’t want to learn or behave, just play on their phones and get instantly gratified- among this bunch many had flunked earlier classes on the same topic in middle school or barely passed, getting socially promoted in a community with a lot of sob stories about shitty home lives. What does admin do when the kids act up and bully the teacher? No matter what the reality, they cover their own asses and back the kids, chasing the teacher out of the district. And it’s not just the boys, as a male adult, any accusation by a female student was treated as gospel. I’m done.

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