From Sexting to Bra Snapping: How to Protect K-12 Students against Sexual Harassment

A study entitled Hostile Hallways, conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) revealed that as many as 82 percent of the students in America admitted to being subjected to some form of sexual harassment during their schooling years. Most cases involved student-to-student harassment, as opposed to teacher-to-student harassment.

Females were in a worse position, with 1 in every 4 girls reporting that she had faced sexual harassment; with boys, it was 1 in 10 cases.  The nature of harassment inflicted on female students ranged from being made the victim of sexual jokes, to unwanted physical attention, to being subject to attempts to lift skirts or snap bras. For male students (although many of these issues were applicable to female students as well), the spreading of sexual rumors and challenging other boys’ sexual orientation was a common form of sexual harassment.  Lunchrooms, hallways, school buses and playgrounds were the hot spots for these forms of harassment.  Since the study was conducted and its results made public in 1993, schools have made serious efforts to curb this menace that may have once been viewed as simply “kids being kids.”

Defining sexual harassment

Deciding what falls under the label of sexual harassment and what doesn’t is very subjective.  The actual definition of sexual harassment reads “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life.”  This wording lends itself to some interpretation and ambiguity in terms of schools’ responses. A six-year old boy was suspended for sexual harassment in North Carolina 1996 for kissing female classmate on the cheek. On the other hand, there are serious cases such as Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education where a fellow student of a fifth grader started groping her to “get in bed with her.” The school failed to take any action against him despite repeated complaints from parents.  Quite understandably, putting cases of alleged sexual harassment into clear-cut categories is not possible.

Today, sexual harassment between students is even more widespread because of the viral nature of the internet and sexting. A photo that a young man sends his latest crush can quickly become fodder for a school-wide joke when it appears on a social media account or is texted to a large group of other students. It is also much harder for students to get away from harassment because their school lives follow them more closely than ever outside classroom hours, due to technology. It is also difficult to know where a school’s jurisdiction ends when it comes to harassment between students that takes place outside of school hours.

The problem of sexual harassment in schools is persistent.  Schools can act more responsibly on the issue by formulating proper and specific sexual harassment policies and providing special training programs for teachers, students and other administrative staff.  Seeking the support of parents is also beneficial. The challenges around implementing sexual harassment policies are made even more difficult because students shy away from reporting incidents, for fear of suffering additional consequences or being ridiculed.  The solution is to create a safe environment in the school so that such instances of harassments simply do not take place and the students feel secure, although this is often easier said than done.

Parents – at the ones who are actively involved in the lives of their students – can also take a stand by teaching their children to avoid sexual objectification and joking of all types. It will take a large cultural push to really implement change but the next generation of K-12 students deserves a harassment-free experience.

How do you think we can reach students with a no-sexual harassment message?

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