Sexual harassment in school takes its toll.
Individual cases began surfacing from across the country. In Lakewood, Calif., a group of high school boys tallied points for every girl they had sex with. In Duluth, Minn., boys repeatedly wrote graffiti saying "Katie Lyle is a whore" and other slurs that can't be printed. When a young girl broke up with a boy in Mason City, Iowa, more than 20 students, both boys and girls, taunted her, claiming that she had sex with
The first empirical data on school-based sexual harassment appeared in June, 1993, when the American Association of University Women's Educational Foundation released Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey of Sexual Harassment in America's Schools. This national study, the first of its kind, alerted the American public that the sexual harassment of children while they are in school is a widespread, serious issue.
It was during the process of preparing an earlier study, The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls, that researchers first came across some disturbing data on sexual harassment. The AAUW had commissioned the Wellesley Center for Research on Women to analyze all of the available data on the subject of girls in school. including more than 1,300 independent reports and studies. The report revealed a school environment that was distinctly hostile towards girls. While sexual harassment was just one of the many forces contributing to this situation, it is particularly troubling. After all, children are required by law to attend school. They have the right to feel safe.
Several questions were raised: How widespread is the problem? Who is being harassed and who are the harassers? Where is this taking place? How are school children reacting to it? The foundation decided that this was an issue requiring more detailed research and commissioned Louis Harris and Associates to survey more than 1,600 public school students--male and female, African-American, white. and Hispanic--in grades eight through 11.
The survey, conducted in February and March, 1993, was the first major U.S. study of sexual harassment in school. It not only measured the extent of school-based sexual harassment, but also surveyed who the perpetrators were, what motivated them to harass other students, and how being harassed affected emotional health and ability to study.
The results revealed not only a high incidence of sexual harassment in American schools, but also shed light on stereotypical ideas of the victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment. Four out of five of the children surveyed said they had experienced unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior either at school or during a school-related activity. The survey also found that a student's first experience of sexual harassment is likely to occur during the middle school years; 32% of those who have been harassed had their first experience during grades six through nine.
The type of harassment experienced spans a full range of behaviors, from the non-physical, such as receiving sexual comments, jokes, and gestures, the most common type, to the physical, such as being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Girls are subjected more often than boys to every type of harassment except for being shown or given sexual pictures, photographs, and notes; having clothes pulled off or down; being spied on while dressing or showering; and being called gay.
The survey revealed that, of the youngsters who have been targets of sexual harassment, 18% have been harassed by teachers, coaches, bus drivers, security guards, teacher aids, principals, or counselors. One in four girls and one in 10 boys are targeted by an adult school employee. Students themselves, however, are principally the ones sexually harassing each other-nearly four out of five were harassed by a current or former student at school. Girls, as well as boys, admit that they have sexually harassed someone at school.
The study also probed into the motivations behind sexual harassment, asking respondents why they harassed other students. Thirty-seven percent of those who admit sexually harassing others stated: "It's just part of school life/a lot of people do it/ it's no big deal." The survey shows that schoolchildren are as insensitive and awkward in their interpersonal relations as adults. Twenty-four percent of student harassers indicated that one of the reasons for their behavior was "I thought the other person liked it."
Sexual harassment also impacts on students' ability to function in school. Students who have been harassed reported that they didn't want to attend school, were less inclined to participate in class, found it hard to concentrate or study, stayed home from school and cut class, made lower grades, and had second thoughts about whether they would graduate from high school. In all but one category, the number of girls who reported a negative impact on their education was twice the number of boys. Significantly higher numbers of girls than boys reported negative emotional effects of sexual harassment, including feeling embarrassed and self-conscious, losing confidence, and being afraid or confused.
The survey also revealed that boys routinely are experiencing sexual harassment in school, especially African-American youths. Forty-nine percent of black youngsters surveyed have been intentionally brushed up against in a sexual way and 22% have been forced to kiss someone; 19% have been forced to do something sexual other than kissing.
More than twice as many boys (23%) as girls (10%) reported being called gay. According to the survey, this is the worst kind of sexual harassment for a boy. When asked to what degree they would be upset if they were the targets of the 14 different types of sexual harassment outlined in the survey, 85% of the boys said they would be "very upset" if they were called gay. No other type of harassment--including actual physical abuse--provoked a reaction this strong.
Another question the Harris researchers asked was "Where is all this harassment taking place?" The survey found that the two areas where a student is most likely to be harassed are in the hallways or in a classroom. More than 65% of those who reported being harassed said the incident occurred in the hall, while 55% said it took place in a classroom. These findings raise some troubling questions about the quality of the adult supervision in school. Why is this type of behavior tolerated in the halls and in the classrooms--two public, supervised areas that should be safe?
Also of note, the survey revealed that the boys' locker rooms and restrooms are more dangerous than the girls'. Twenty-four percent of boys compared to 14% of girls said they were harassed in the locker room, while twice as many boys as girls (14%, compared to seven percent) reported that they were harassed in restrooms.
The release of these findings served as a wake-up call to teachers and administrators across the country who either were unaware of or unwilling to address the sexual harassment in their schools. Educators have begun to take the first step in dealing with sexual harassment--to recognize the problem and its implications.
On the national level, the AAUW has been working closely with lawmakers in the House and Senate to develop and pass the Gender Equity in Education Package, which includes provisions for school-based sexual harassment research and prevention programs. Throughout the U.S., local AAUW branches have worked hand in hand with school boards, Parent Student Teacher Associations, and grassroots groups to teach students, educators, and the public about sexual harassment in schools and assist in the development of sexual harassment policies.
Meanwhile, individual institutions need to take the initiative to stop sexual harassment and promote a safer, less hostile environment for girls and boys. More than half of the students surveyed didn't know if their school had a policy on dealing with this issue. School administrators need to develop written policies that spell out clearly what sexual harassment is. It is vital that students understand that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. To accomplish this, administrators must communicate clearly and enforce vigorously school sexual harassment initiatives. Teachers have to stop sexual harassment when they see it, and administrators need to investigate the cases that are reported.
The fact that most sexual harassment takes place in open, supervised areas such as hallways and classrooms suggests that teachers and other adult school employees are either ignoring sexual harassment when they see it or deliberately choosing not to intervene. Others may be unsure of how to deal with sexual harassment that they witness because they lack the knowledge and training or their schools don't have a clear policy. Still others may consider sexual harassment by students to be a normal part of teenage life, a combination of awkward flirting and harmless teasing.
The problem with this approach is, as the AAUW survey shows, sexual harassment is not harmless--young people, especially girls, lose self-esteem, find it difficult to study, and make poor grades as a result of it. Besides, when sexual harassment in school is ignored, this kind of behavior, in effect, is being condoned. If young people don't learn that sexual harassment is wrong while they are in school, when will they learn? This is one behavior learned in school that appears to recur in the workplace.
RELATED ARTICLE: A Litany of Sexual Harassment
Types of sexual harassment experienced in school, from the most to least common, include:
* Having sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks directed at oneself.
* Being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way.
* Intentionally being brushed up against in a sexual way.
* Being flashed or mooned.
* Having sexual rumors spread about oneself.
* Having clothing pulled at in a sexual way.
* Being shown, given, or left sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes.
* Having one's way blocked in a sexual way.
* Having sexual messages/graffiti written about oneself on bathroom walls, in locker rooms, etc.
* Being forced to kiss someone.
* Being called gay or lesbian.
* Being forced to do something sexual other than kissing.
* Having had clothing pulled off or down.
* Being spied on while dressing or showering.
Ms. Bryant is executive directory, American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, Washington, D.C. a number of boys. She was physically assaulted and had to leave school.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||includes related information on types of harassment|
|Publication:||USA Today (Magazine)|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
|Previous Article:||Sexual harassment: a growing workplace dilemma.|
|Next Article:||There's no such thing as justice on campus.|
|Schools full of sexual harassment.|
|Sexual harassment: bad for business.|
|Sexual harassment doesn't respect school boundaries.|
|Ruling Out Sexual Harassment.|
|Adolescent surveys broaden thinking about bullying.|