Sexual Harassment in Schools

Sexual Harassment in Schools: “Harassment in the Halls”

By Alyson Hendrickson Wentz
From Soroptimist Magazine, NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1999

Elizabeth hates school. In elementary school she was a good student, but once she got into middle school things changed. She and her female friends are constantly subjected to sexual slurs, jokes and suggestions from their male classmates. And the verbal harassment is nothing compared to the physical harassment. The boys pinch, fondle, grope and rub up against Elizabeth and her friends as they walk down the hallways, stand at their lockers or wait in line for lunch.

In the last few months, Elizabeth has been so busy fighting off unwanted advances that she has little time to focus on her schoolwork. She is thinking of asking her parents if she can switch schools, but she isn’t sure things will be any better in another school. As one of her teachers said, “boys will be boys,” no matter where she goes.

Stories like Elizabeth’s are becoming all too common in schools throughout Canada, the United States and many other countries. No longer confined to the workplace, sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence in high schools, middle schools and even elementary schools. In cafeterias, hallways, classrooms and gymnasiums, boys are calling girls “bitches,” “whores” and “sluts.” Girls are belittling boys by commenting on the size of their genitalia, and their lack of sexual experience. Boys are groping, pinching and fondling girls’ buttocks and breasts, and urging them to perform sexual acts. This isn’t just a simple school discipline problem. This is sexual harassment, and schools need to know how to recognize it, stop it and, most important, teach children not to do it.

Recognizing Sexual Harassment
“Sometimes kids will come and complain about another kid, and I have to tell them that this is harassment,” says Karol Erdman, associate principal at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “They don’t even recognize it as being harassment.”

When June Larkin, assistant professor of Women’s Studies and Equity Studies at the University of Toronto in Canada conducted her research for the report Sexual Harassment: High School Girls Speak Out, she found that most female high school students didn’t understand the meaning of sexual harassment. “I didn’t give them a definition. I just invited them to talk about what they thought it might be,” she said. “They had all heard of the term, but weren’t clear about its meaning. Many thought it was rape or sexual assault.

Almost all of them said they had never been sexually harassed.” It was when girls started recalling incidents where boys had repeatedly called them sexual names, grabbed them or propositioned them that they began to realize the many forms that sexual harassment takes.

Defining the difference between teasing, which is what many harassers will say that they are doing, and actual harassment can be difficult. “Teasing is more of a one-time thing. They don’t keep going at it,” says Evelyn Munson, a junior at Rush-Henrietta High School in Henrietta, New York. “Harassment is more something that would happen every day. It’s more of a persistent annoyance.”

Hostile Hallways, a report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), defines sexual harassment as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s life.” The report says that victims of sexual harassment don’t want to attend school, are less likely to participate in class, have less concentration and perform poorly on tests.

In her majority ruling in Aurelia Davis v. Monroe County (Georgia) Board of Education, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor described sexual harassment as “severe, pervasive, objectively offensive,” and disruptive enough to keep a student from the equal educational opportunities guaranteed by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Davis’ daughter LaShonda had been repeatedly subjected to genital grabbing and lewd comments by the boy sitting next to her in her fifth-grade class. Despite numerous complaints, it took three months before the boy was moved to another seat, and still, the harassment continued. LaShonda began having nightmares about him; her grades dropped; and she contemplated suicide.

Katy Lyle, the plaintiff in Lyle v. Independent School District 709, was a sophomore at Duluth Central High School in Duluth, Minnesota, when someone wrote obscene graffiti about her in the boys’ bathrooms. A few carelessly scrawled words ruined her reputation, and gave boys license, they believed, to harass her everwhere she went. Once a well-liked student, Lyle found that her girlfriends drifted away out of fear that their reputations would suffer from being seen with her. Even teachers’ attitudes toward her changed. When administrative procedure disputes prevented the school from removing the graffiti for more than a year, Lyle and her parents sued. The Duluth school board settled the case out of court, paying the Lyles $15,000 for Katy’s emotional ordeal, labeled “alleged pain and suffering” in court.

Everyday Sexual Harassment
Beyond the major cases such as Davis and Lyle, student-on-student sexual harassment covers a broad territory from minor, one-time incidents to ongoing harassment. In a Minnesota survey, 80 percent of high school students were aware of harassment happening in their schools. The National Organization for Women and Wellesley College found that 83 percent of the 4,200 girls surveyed had been fondled at some point in time, and 40 percent stated that they were sexually harassed in school on a daily basis. The AAUW study found that 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys had experienced sexual harassment in school. The situation is not confined to the United States. A Canadian study reports that 83 percent of female students have suffered sexual harassment in school. A report from Sweden indicates that 47 percent of teenage girls are sexually harassed. And, having just come back from South Africa, the University of Toronto’s Larkin reports that sexual harassment is also a growing concern there.

The harassment is also starting very early. Children at Belmar Elementary School in Belmar, New Jersey, were part of a recent sexual harassment scandal when they started “checking the oil,” a game played by running around and poking each others’ behinds.
More serious incidents are taking place in middle schools.

A male classmate accosted an eighth-grader in Florida while she was on the way to the restroom. He followed her into the bathroom, held her up against the wall, and fondled her. The girl’s parents took the boy to court and got a restraining order against him.
Larkin has numerous stories of sexual harassment taking place in high schools. One such story was of a Canadian high school girl attending a class when a male student exposed himself to her from the classroom doorway, and beckoned for her to come with him. Although most cases of sexual harassment involve girls being harassed by boys, Erdman did have a male high school student complain to her about a female classmate who kept “pawing” him. “Boys aren’t supposed to report that they’re being sexually harassed,” she says. “They’re taught to enjoy it and sometimes even solicit it.”

Another typical form of sexual harassment in schools is “rating.” In many schools, groups of boys lay claim to particular hallways as “rating corridors,” where they stand and hold up papers with numbers from one to 10 to “rate” the appearances of girls and marginalized boys as they walk by, Larkin says. A senior girl in Minnesota sued her school because boys were passing around a list of the 25 female students with whom they most wanted to have sex. She received a $40,000 settlement from the school district.

Laws and Policies
Title IX states that “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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” In 1992, Franklin v. Gwinnet County Public Schools was the landmark case whereby the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that students could sue for damages for sexual harassment and other forms of sexual discrimination under Title IX. The Franklin case involved a teacher who had a sexual relationship with a student, with the knowledge of other faculty members. The recent Davis ruling also set a precedent, this time in student-on-student sexual harassment. The Supreme Court ruled five to four that any school receiving federal money can face a sex-discrimination suit under Title IX for failing to intervene appropriately when a student complains of sexual harassment by another student.

“It goes beyond kids acting inappropriately or unseemly to other kids, it goes to the responsibility of the schools and the people there to do something to stop it and intervene,” says Della S. Grossman, Ed.D., a clinical and forensic psychologist who specializes in sexual harassment and assault. The most common way that schools deal with sexual harassment is to draft policies addressing it. Many schools have sexual harassment policies that outline the steps in reporting it, stopping it and punishing those who do it. Some states, including California and Minnesota, have mandated that schools adopt a sexual harassment policy and distribute written copies to students. The education departments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania strongly recommend that districts set up sexual harassment policies.

An example of one school district’s sexual harassment policy is the Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Community School District Regulation 064.2, which is printed in the student handbook. It states that “harassment on the basis of a student’s race, color, religion, national origin, age, disability, sex, marital status or parental status will not be tolerated in the school district…. Sexual harassment shall include, but not be limited to, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal and physical conduct of a sexual nature when such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with a student’s educational opportunities, or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment.”

Although she’s not sure of the exact details of her school’s sexual harassment policy, Danielle Funk, a sophomore at Cyprus Lake High School in Fort Meyers, Florida, knows that her school does have one. “They have assemblies, and at the beginning of the year they give out booklets. Sometimes they give them out in the middle of the year also.” The policy’s main point Funk says is, “If you have a problem, you tell somebody.”
Munson, of Rush-Henrietta High School, is also not sure of the specifics of her school’s sexual harassment policy. “If someone needed to talk to someone they know to talk to the guidance counselor,” she says. “The counselors make it very clear that talks would be confidential. You have to meet with them to get schedules and stuff, so they let you know then that if you need to talk about anything that they’re there for you.” Rush-Henrietta’s guidance counselors also visit homerooms to talk about such issues as sexual harassment, Munson says.

“If we are informed of any kind of sexual harassment, we talk to the children involved,” says one middle school guidance counselor. “Then we follow that up with some investigative type of work-talk to some other children who may have overheard or seen the harassment, or maybe saw something that would refute the accusation. Once we determine that there is a problem, that actual sexual harassment is going on, we call the parents and talk with them about it. We counsel the kids and offer resources for the harassers and those who are being harassed.”

Sexual Harassment Education
Developing sexual harassment policies is a step in the right direction, but most experts feel schools need to do more. “If a policy is not followed up with education, it can be protective of the institutions, and do nothing for the targets of harassment,” the University of Toronto’s Larkin says. “On one school board a parent complained about his daughter being harassed, and the board said, ‘That’s not possible. We have a policy that says you can’t do that.'”

Since publishing her book in 1994, Larkin has run hundreds of sexual harassment workshops to educate administrators, teachers and students. “I think the important thing is to be proactive, as opposed to punitive-name it, talk about it,” she says. “When I work with students I find what is most helpful is to talk about a situation. If you can help people to understand what it feels like, I think that makes a big difference.”

At Strawberry Hill Elementary School in Anamosa, Iowa, students receive regular sexual harassment education. “The other elementary counselor and I go into the classrooms and go over what harassment is, what are examples of it, what you should do if you are harassed and what happens if you are the harasser,” says guidance counselor Kathleen Conmey. Some of the things that Conmey defines as harassment are inappropriate comments about body parts, “dirty” jokes, hand and body gestures, and unwanted touching, hugging or kissing.

Conmey also offers students coping strategies. “We always ask if they’ve asked the person to stop,” she says. If the child being harassed has asked the harasser to stop and he or she hasn’t, the child is encouraged to report the harassment. Conmey would then meet with the harasser to discuss the problem. “When they need to be talked to about it, we don’t do it real scary but we say ‘This is breaking the law, and if somebody did this when they were older the police could arrest them,'” she says.

Sexual harassment education at Cedar Rapids’ Jefferson High School is also done on a one-on-one basis. “One of the things we try to do, primarily with the women students because they tend to be more the object of some harassment than the male population, is teach them some strategies and tactics for dealing with the onset of harassment,” associate principal Karol Erdman says. Girls who are being harassed are urged to speak up, so others can hear, and clearly tell the person harassing them to stop.
Speaking up is hard for girls and boys. “They may risk being ridiculed by other students for doing that,” Erdman says. “We have to do some role-playing and actually practice using the words to say those kinds of things to people who are bothering them.” After the person being harassed tells the harasser to stop, she or he is then encouraged to report the harassment to Erdman so she can investigate.

Encouraging kids to report harassment and having them actually do so are two different things. “I don’t think the instances of report mesh with the circumstances of occurrences,” Erdman says. “There’s this whole mentality about narcing [reporting other children]. Even if it’s nasty stuff happening to you, you don’t narc. You don’t narc for fear of retaliation. You don’t narc for fear of losing your friends.” Backing up Erdman’s opinion is the finding from Hostile Hallways that fewer than one in 10 students report sexual harassment, and girls are much more likely to report the harassment than are boys.

Causes of Sexual Harassment
Educators and experts can provide definitions for sexual harassment, draft policies to address it, implement courses to educate about it, but what ultimately causes sexual harassment? Why do children feel the need to degrade, dominate and destroy their classmates in this manner?

Some teachers and counselors think that student-on-student sexual harassment is brought about in part by the flood of sexual material available to kids via television, movies, magazines and the Internet. However, the University of Toronto’s Larkin doesn’t agree with this reasoning. “I think that we tend to lay the problem of sexism and racism at the door of the media, but, as someone said, sexism existed a long time before we had TV, before we had radio. I think it may be another vehicle to transmit sexism, and sexual harassment is a form of sexism, but I think we use that as a primary focus too much.”

Far from being a phenomenon of our multimedia age, sexual harassment existed long before television and computer games. “It’s very much in many ways part of the way male and female dynamics get played out,” Larkin says. “It’s very much part of traditional gender dynamics where boys’ status gets built up by putting females down.” She adds, “Harassment is a way of maintaining power, and it’s also become a way to try to get it.” Girls who want to get power will harass boys and even other marginalized girls, Larkin says. “The root cause is an overall lack of self-respect, which translates into lack of respect for human beings in general,” Jefferson High School’s Erdman says, adding that self-respect, or lack thereof, is something that is taught and internalized in the home.

Working Toward A Solution
Some schools are dealing with the issue of sexual harassment proactively through various types of equity education and mutual respect curricula. “We do a lot with values, and a lot with respect for all people,” says Pat Majerczak, a first-grade teacher in a Catholic school in New Jersey. She says her school has a strong focus on providing equal opportunities to girls. “There’s a lot of talk about allowing girls to feel as important as the boys, especially in curriculum,” Majerczak says. At Iowa’s Strawberry Hill Elementary School, Kathleen Conmey is focused on teaching children life skills and social skills, such as responsibility and respect. “To me it all goes together. We need to start teaching these life skills and social skills because that’s what’s missing,” she says. “If they know reading, writing and arithmetic, but they’re ornery, horrible, uncooperative and unflattering people, that is not going to make it. We have to talk about being a responsible, respectful individual. If you’re not respectful, that’s part of harassment.”

School children, both girls and boys, deserve respect, and should expect respect. Sexual harassment cannot be pushed aside as “boys will be boys,” or, as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said, writing for the minority in the Davis case, “an inescapable part of adolescence.” Parents, schools and communities need to work together to make sure that children not only learn respect for others, but also have respect for themselves. A child with self-respect will treat others with respect. Children who believe in themselves will not need to exert power over others through harassment. Perhaps most important is that children who are taught respect will grow up to be respectful adults.

Sidebar Story: Bullying: Harassment In Japan
While schools in many countries wrestle with the issue of sexual harassment, Japanese schools are contending with another type of harassment-bullying. A recent report defined bullying as actions that are meant to cause physical and psychological pain, such as cruel comments, physical abuse and threats. Kiyoteru Okouchi, an eighth-grade boy in Nishio, Japan, was a victim of bullying who committed suicide. In his suicide note, Okouchi described the cruel treatment he received from four boys at his school. They extorted as much as a million yen from Okouchi, assaulted him and threatened to drown him. Following what became known as the “Nishio Affair,” the Japanese government called for measures against bullying. In 1994, the same year that Okouchi committed suicide, 14 other Japanese students killed themselves as a result of bullying.

As with sexual harassment, bullying is a way that students exert power over other students. There is usually a lead bully, who is joined by other students who want to gain his or her favor. Bullying begins in elementary school, but escalates in middle school, where children jockey for social position in the new environment.

Along with being a way to dominate others, bullying is also thought to be a by-product of the extreme stress exerted on Japanese students to perform well in school. Instead of striking out against their parents or teachers, some students relieve their stress by bullying other students. When victims report their harassers, they seldom receive help from teachers, because schools are very concerned about their reputations. This lack of validation and support causes more pain for the bullied children, and may be one factor in their choice of suicide as an escape.

Instead of telling a teacher, children who are being bullied should stand up to the bullies, says Koji Onuma, author of The Way of Driving Back Bullying Completely. Confrontation is the best way to end bullying, Onuma says, because most bullies are cowards who prey on weaker children. However, once a victim confronts a bully, the bully will turn her or his attentions to another child, thereby continuing the cycle of abuse.

The only real way to end bullying is for bullies to understand why they bully, Onuma says. This means that the children have to recognize the stress they are under and try to find others ways of dealing with it. Teachers, parents and community members also need to recognize what causes a child to bully, Onuma says.

Sidebar Story: Taking Action
Educating girls and boys about sexual harassment while they are still in school lowers the chances that they will be subjected to it or engage in it as adults. Below are suggested activities clubs can use to help stop workplace sexual harassment before it starts, and thereby ease the way for the business and professional women of the future.

Preliminary Research
Research how local schools and universities handle sexual harassment. Find out if they:

  • have established sexual harassment policies that clearly state that sexual harassment will not be tolerated, and explain what types of conduct will be considered sexual harassment;
  • have developed specific grievance procedures for resolving complaints of sexual harassment; and
  • ensure that new administrators, teachers, guidance counselors, staff and students are well-informed about the sexual harassment policies and grievance procedures.

-Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights

Suggested Activities
If local schools and universities do not have policies regarding sexual harassment, or if the existing policies are outdated, Soroptimist clubs can prompt the creation or updating of these guidelines. For example:

  • Raise the topic of sexual harassment with the girls participating in the club’s mentoring program, or with “S” Club and Sigma Society members. Ask if any of them have ever been harassed, and find out how they handled it. Involve them in club sexual harassment prevention activities.
  • Develop and conduct student surveys in cooperation with the schools’ administrators to find out whether sexual harassment is occurring in the schools.
  • Partner with school administrators to establish discussion groups for both female and male students where they can talk about what sexual harassment is and how to respond to it in the school setting.
  • Sponsor sexual harassment awareness training for parents of elementary and secondary students. This could involve providing financial assistance, coordinating the training, or even researching and developing a training program.
  • Create a comprehensive guide to local schools’ and colleges’ sexual harassment policies regarding students. Partner with the local YWCA, Girl Scout troop or Girls Club to create a students’ version.

Possible Topics
Subjects regularly covered in established sexual harassment workshops include:

  • appropriate behavior versus inappropriate behavior
  • flirting versus harassment
  • identifying and reacting to sexual harassment
  • identifying damage caused by harassing behavior
  • detecting and preventing the behavior.

-Source: McGrath Systems, Inc.

For More Information
American Association of University Women
1111 Sixteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036 Phone: (800) 326-AAUW Fax: (202) 872-1425

Working Women’s Sexual Harassment Resource Center
1130 Burden Street
Prince George, British Columbia Canada V2M 2J2

National Education Association
1201 Sixteenth Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036
Phone: (202) 833-4000

National Organization for Women
733 15th Street, NW, 2nd Floor
Washington, DC 20005
Phone: (202) 628-8669
Fax: (202) 785-8576

Related Reading
Hostile Hallways
(AAUW, 1993)

Sexual Bullying: Gender Conflict and Pupil Culture in Secondary Schools
by Neil Duncan
(Routledge, 1999)

Sexual Harassment: High School Girls Speak Out
by June Larkin
(Second Story Press, 1994)

Preventing Sexual Harassment in Schools
by Miriam Smith McLaughlin and Sandra Peyser
(Enslow Publishers, 1999)

Sexual Harassment: What Teens Should Know
by Carol Rust Nash
(Enslow Publishers, 1996)

Dating: A Peer Education Manual for Reducing Sexual Harassment and Violence Among Secondary Students
by Toby Simon
(Learning Publications, 1996)

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