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Over the past few weeks the phrase “#me too,” has appeared countless times on different social media platforms. This movement, spurred by the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, a powerful producer in Hollywood, spurred millions of women to share their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse by men throughout their personal and professional lives.
This movement thrills me for some reasons, and in the same breath, it scares me. I get excited to see girls standing up and saying "this is what I’ve been through, it’s not okay, and I’m not going to be silenced about it anymore." It scares me because as our students gain the strength to come forward, and begin to share their stories, I have to ask myself, are we, as teachers, prepared to listen, acknowledge, and enforce the necessary changes in society, beginning with our classrooms and schools? For a long time, teachers have reacted to sexual harassment in schools with a dismissive attitude, accepting the behavior as something that is normal, or to is expected, in schools. We are talking about making a major change to the way girls (and boys too) are treated every day. This is going to be a huge battle, especially when you take into consideration who our current president is and his background with women.are we, as teachers, prepared to listen, acknowledge, and enforce the necessary changes in society? Click To Tweet
Sexual harassment is ingrained in our society. I can recall the first time I was whistled at by a grown man in my bathing suit - in third grade. It happened in front of my parents, and not a word was said. Sexual harassment starts young, and from a young age, girls are expected to accept that this is how men behave and to just ‘deal’ with it. It took a major movement like this one to even draw attention to sexual harassment in the workplace. Apparently, Harvey Weinstein has been sexually harassing women in Hollywood since the 80s, and it is only now, in 2017, that women have come forward to share their stories.
Does Sexual Harassment really happen that much in our schools?
According to a 2010- 2011 study by the American Association of University Women, entitled “Crossing the Line,” almost 2,000 students in grades 7-12 were surveyed about sexual harassment in schools during the 2010-2011 school year. It was determined that Sexual harassment is widespread, with nearly 48 percent of the students surveyed claiming that they have encountered some form of sexual harassment during that school year. Sexual harassment by digital means (i.e. texting, e-mail, Facebook, etc.) affected 30 percent of these students, and many of these students were also subjected to in-person sexual harassment.
The conclusion of this study is that although sexual harassment makes many students uncomfortable, it appears to be a normal part of school.
So- how do we change this?
Make Sure Students (and teachers) Know What Sexual Harassment is and the Protocol for reporting it
One way to begin the change is to have open discussions with students about what qualifies as sexual harassment. This needs to be made clear to students and even some teachers. The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights defines sexual harassment as;
“an unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”
This means that sexual harassment can be both physical (unwanted touching and groping), as well as verbal (making lewd comments). It also includes gender harassment, where students who do not follow gender “norms” may be called gay or lesbian in a negative way. It should also be noted that sexual harassment most often occurs between boys and girls, but it is also possible for a girl to sexually harass another girl. In my experience as a middle school teacher this is mostly seen when one girl calls another girl a sexually charged name like “slut,” or spreads sexual rumors about her. It is also possible for a boy to sexually harass another boy. In my experience as a middle school teacher, this is most often seen when a boy calls another boy a derogatory term for gay, or “de-pantses” (pulling down pants to reveal undergarments) another boy.
It is important for students to know the effects of sexual harassment. Many of the students who admitted to sexually harassing others in the “Crossing the Line” study didn’t think of it as a big deal (44 percent), and many were trying to be funny (39 percent). This ideology needs to changed, as the results were certainly a big deal for those being harassed. Most students who experienced sexual harassment felt that it had a negative effect on them. These effects ranged from feeling sick to their stomach to having trouble sleeping and concentrating. Some students reported more severe effects like it causing them to miss class, quit a school activity, or change schools. Talking openly about the effects of sexual harassment may help to build empathy and result in a harasser being able to better see the harm in his/her actions.
Administrators need to make preventing sexual harassment a priority
Every public school district is liable for violating Title IX if it fails to take reasonable action against serious, long-term student-to-student sexual harassment that the school employees know about. Teachers need to familiarize themselves with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. This is a federal law that states:
"No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."
Administrators need to ensure that their school enforces Title IX and that students are aware of the protections the law provides. The first step for administrators is to appoint a Title IX coordinator, someone who handles sexual harassment complaints. They should be given appropriate training and resources to help students who have complaints and their name and number should be made available to all students and parents and they should be easily accessible.
Educators must Learn how to Respond
Some teachers may ignore certain behaviors simply because they do not know how to intervene. By doing this, you are sending the message to your students that they are not worth standing up for and that sexual harassment is okay to happen in schools.
If you witness an act of sexual harassment, stop it immediately. Use the incident as a reason for talking to students about sexual harassment, what it is, and why it’s not okay. Follow your school’s protocol for sexual harassment and report it to your Title IX coordinator. As educators we need to set an example for students so that they may also feel empowered to stop any sexual harassment they witness.
If a student confides in you about an instance of sexual harassment, first and foremost, listen to them and acknowledge their feelings. The website, equalrights.org advises having the student write down what happened with as much detail as they can, including where and when it happened, and any potential witnesses. If the student chooses to report the incident to the Title IX coordinator, offer your support as necessary and continue to check in on the student in the coming days and weeks. Reporting an incident is scary and students may need to be reminded that you support them and support their rights to a safe school environment.
Hill, Catherine, and Holly Kearl. “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School.” AAUW: Empowering Women Since 1881, AAUW, www.aauw.org/research/crossing-the-line/.
“Sexual Harassment At School.” Equal Rights Advocates, www.equalrights.org/legal-help/know-your-rights/sexual-harassment-at-school/.
“What Is Sexual Harassment?” Girls for Gender Equity, www.ggenyc.org/programs/education/what-is-sexual-harassment/