Sexual Harassment in Schools?

harassmentSexual harassment is something we often think about in workplaces, but should parents be worrying about it in their child’s school? Unfortunately, it can be a serious problem for students in middle and high schools, and often they are too embarrassed or scared to report it. Both boys and girls can face unwanted sexual conduct from their fellow students or even from teachers or other school officials.

According to a 2011 study by the American Association of University Women, the problem may be worse than you think:

  • Nearly 50% of 7th to 12th graders experience sexual harassment in school
  • 44% of students said they were harassed in person – being subjected to unwelcome comments or jokes, inappropriate touching or sexual intimidation
  • 30% of students reported online harassment – unwelcome comments, jokes, or pictures via text, email, Facebook and other tools, or having sexual rumors, information, or pictures spread about them
  • 87% of those who experience harassment reported negative effects such as absenteeism, poor sleep, and stomachaches
  • Girls reported being harassed more than boys – 56% compared with 40%
  • 33% of girls and 24% of boys said that they observed sexual harassment at their school


Explaining Sexual Harassment to your Teen

Teens are too young and inexperienced to always know what is inappropriate behavior. With budding hormones and flirting abounding, your teen may not realize when a line is crossed. Parents need to take the time to talk to their teens about sexual harassment. We suggest parents offer this definition:

Sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual conduct that makes the school environment feel unsafe. It is different from flirting that you might enjoy. Sexual harassment makes you feel uncomfortable, scared or confused and interferes with your normal routine, schoolwork or your ability to participate in extracurricular activities or attend classes. If sexual advances are bad enough (like groping) or frequent enough (like sexual remarks everytime you walk by) that they make it difficult or unpleasant for you to go about normal school business (like pay attention in class, play on a sports team, or just walk through the halls), it’s called “hostile environment harassment,” and it is unacceptable.

Sexual harassment can be:

  • verbal (comments about your body, catcalls as you walk past, spreading sexual rumors about you, sexual remarks or accusations, dirty jokes or stories)
  • physical (grabbing, rubbing, touching, or pinching in a sexual way)
  • visual (display of naked pictures or sex-related objects, obscene gestures, flashing)
  • online (sexual comments or rumors spread across cyberspace)
  • coercive (threats or “quid pro quo” arrangements, such as a teacher offering to reward a student with an “A” grade for going along with his/her advances, or punishing a student with an “F” grade for rejecting them)

Tell your teen that if they are ever not sure if they are being harassed, they should ask themselves this question: does it feel good or bad? If someone else’s behavior is making you feel bad, then it is harassment.

What Can I Do if My Teen is Being Harassed?

Sexual harassment can make people feel embarrassed and powerless. You need to tell your teen that if they experience sexual harassment, they do not have to just take it! Title IX requires schools to take action if a student is being harassed. If your teen thinks he or she is being sexually harassed, advise your teen to do the following (provided by Equal Rights Advocates):

  • Do not blame yourself. The person who is harassing you is the one doing something wrong and you haven’t done anything to cause the harassment, even if you flirted with this person or liked him/her.
  • Say “No” Clearly. Tell the person who is harassing you that his/her behavior offends you. They may not realize how hurtful their behavior is and may need a clear message from you to stop. If the harassment does not end, promptly write a letter asking the harasser to stop. Keep a copy of the letter.
  • Write down what happened. When someone harasses you or makes you feel uncomfortable, write it down in a notebook that is just for this purpose. Write down what happened, the date it happened, where it happened, and who else may have seen or heard the harassment. Also, write down what you did in response, and how the harassment made you feel. Do not write other information in this notebook, such as appointments or homework assignments. Save any notes, e-mails, text messages, or pictures the harasser sent or posted about you. It is a good idea to keep these records somewhere besides school, such as in your home or another safe place. If the harassment takes place online, such as on Facebook or other website, take steps to save and store the harassing content in case it gets removed or deleted later.
  • Report the Harassment. It is very important that you tell your parents or another adult, like a teacher or guidance counselor, about the harassment. If you want the school to do something about the harassment, you MUST tell a school official, such as the principal, that you are being sexually harassed. If you do not feel comfortable telling the school official yourself, get the help of your parents, a teacher, guidance counselor or another adult to go with you. If you and/or your parents tell a school official verbally, also do it in writing and keep a copy for yourself. If the first school official (like the principal) doesn’t respond, go to the school board or Superintendent to complain. The law says the school has to stop sexual harassment of a student whether the harasser is a teacher or another student(s), but the school is only required to stop the harassment if someone in authority at the school knows what is happening to you.
  • Consult the school grievance policies and Title IX officer. Your school is supposed to have a policy against sexual harassment. Get a copy of the policy and read it. The Title IX grievance policy may also give you a list of the types of behavior that the school considers to be sexual harassment. Find out from your school who the Title IX officer or coordinator is for your school or district. You should be able to ask him or her questions about how to complain, and what to expect during the complaint and investigation process.
  • File a Complaint With a Government Agency. If nothing happens after complaining to school officials, you and/or your parents can file a complaint against the school with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Generally, you must file a complaint with the OCR within 180 days of an act of discrimination or harassment. You can call them, and they will explain how to file a complaint.
  • File a Lawsuit. You can also file a lawsuit against the school. If you want to do this, you should look into it quickly, because there are time limits for filing a lawsuit. States’ time limits vary from 1 to 6 years.


Final Thoughts…

Hopefully, your teenager will never experience sexual harassment, but it is important to talk to them about it so they recognize it as unacceptable behavior. You neither want your teen to helplessly take harassment, nor accidentally cross the line themselves and become a harasser.

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