School is meant to be a safe place for students to learn and grow. Unfortunately sexual harassment between peers has become part of the everyday life of middle and high school students, as revealed by a study released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). Nearly half, 48 percent, of surveyed students experienced some form of sexual harassment.
The U.S. Department of Education defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Thus, sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX can include conduct such as touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes, or gestures; … calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.”
Although school administrators have traditionally often focused on combating bullying, since the rate of sexual harassment in schools appears to be much higher than previously thought, it is clear changes need to be made in the way sexual harassment is addressed in schools.
To begin with, students are afraid to come forward after being sexually harassed. The AAUW report reveals that half of the students surveyed did nothing in response to being harassed. Only a startlingly small 9 percent of students reported incidents to an adult in school. Catherine Hill (one of the authors of the report) said, “There is a fear of coming forward. To school principals: If you don’t hear anything, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a problem. We need to do more than just respond; we need to prevent sexual harassment.” School administrations need to create a safe environment where students feel comfortable reporting incidents of sexual harassment.
In my high school, similar to other schools, there are visible instances of sexual harassment that occur all the time. Whether it is students calling each other “gay” or a “slut,” many offensive words are flung across the school hallways. As a girl, I frequently am the target of comments about my chest or what I am wearing. From these experiences, I am sympathetic to my peers who may find this type of verbal harassment debilitating.
School administrators need to focus on conveying the seriousness of harassment to their students since some students are unaware or unwilling to recognize the consequences of their actions. Many students admitted to sexually harassing others and 44% of these students did not think it was a big deal and 39% were trying to be funny. Prevention efforts should address when humor crosses the line and the effect it can have on the students. In addition, student harassers need to be aware that the emotional toll of their actions negatively affects their peers’ educations, often leading to loss of productivity and increased absences from school. Middle and high school age students need to take responsibility for their own actions. By making effective changes the school climate can be transformed to ensure students can learn unfettered by sexual harassment.