• Michelle Martínez Vega • IDRA Newsletter • February 2018 •
This is a pivotal moment in American culture. The spotlight on sexual harassment, misconduct and bullying, and its prevalence, has reached a fevered pitch in mainstream and social media. While sexual harassment is not a new phenomenon, the courage to speak out and take on aggressors publicly is new to many of us. Just like adults, our youth are viewing these brave survivors tell their stories on the public stage.
We are amid a teachable moment; while adults and adolescents alike may feel confused or impassioned by what they are witnessing, we should capitalize on this moment. What can we do as adults to ensure our students feel comfortable talking about this difficult subject? How do we empower students to advocate for each other to speak up when necessary and to act to protect themselves and their peers?
Sexual harassment is not just a female issue. Both male and female students can be victims or harassers, and it can occur between students of the same or opposite sex. Sexual harassment can take on many different forms. The conduct can be carried out by trusted friends, co-workers, family members or complete strangers. It also can occur in any age group. It is not just adults who suffer sexual harassment or other forms of sexual misconduct and violence.
Defining Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment as defined by the U.S. Department of Education and the Office for Civil Rights is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual violence is a form of sexual harassment. A number of different acts fall into the category of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, sexual abuse and sexual coercion. The misconduct can occur anywhere – at an after-school program or at a school-sanctioned activity, in a school facility or school transportation, off campus or online. Harassment can be verbal, nonverbal or physical. Gender-based harassment is the unwelcome conduct based on a student’s sex or harassing conduct based on a student’s failure to conform to sex stereotypes. (OCR, 2017)
Impact on Education and Prevalence
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) commissioned research using a nationally representative sample of 2,064 public school students in eighth through 11th grades finding that eight in 10 students experience some form of sexual harassment at some time during their educational career (2001). How do these experiences impact education?
Students report that, in addition to feeling upset or embarrassed, there are consequences that are more directly tied to education. In addition to increased absences, one quarter of the students who experience harassment say they do not talk as much or participate in class, and two in 10 found it hard to pay attention and stay focused on learning. The type of harassment also can determine the severity of the impact on the student. Students who experience physical harassment are more likely than those who experience nonphysical acts to report these types of behavioral and educational consequences.
Safeguarding the Learning Environment
Educators are trusted adults. Students often look to their teachers and administrators as guides for social interaction. Therefore, it is imperative for educators to speak up if they witness harassment or bullying. In fact, the law requires it. “See something; say something!” Do not let the action or behavior go unchecked. When students see an adult ignoring or excusing words or actions of sexual harassment, bullying or misconduct, they are more than likely to do the same.
Speaking up, acknowledging and stopping the behavior is paramount to the student’s feelings of safety. If sexual harassment is known to occur between individuals, further steps may need to be taken to ensure safety. Title IX requires schools to take actions to prevent and remedy sex-based harassment (including sexual violence) and gender-based harassment (Sparks, 2011).
The IDRA EAC-South’s capacity-building technical assistance can help state and local education agencies in addressing inequities and desegregation issues impacting sex and gender equity. These issues may be self-identified or identified through an active school desegregation court order, an Office for Civil Rights resolution, or an investigation by a federal or state civil rights enforcement agency. Promoting sex and gender equity can help schools ensure equal access to rigorous coursework, a healthier and safe learning climate, and high-quality teaching.
Types of behavior you may see in a child or adolescent who has been harassed include the following (Stop It Now, 2018).
- Has nightmares or other sleep problems without an explanation;
- Seems distracted or distant at odd times;
- Has a sudden change in eating habits;
- Sudden mood swings: rage, fear, insecurity or withdrawal;
- Leaves “clues” that seem likely to provoke a discussion about sexual issues;
- Develops new or unusual fear of certain people or places;
- Refuses to talk about a secret shared with an adult or fellow student;
- Suddenly has money, toys or other gifts without reason;
- Thinks of self or body as repulsive, dirty or bad;
- Exhibits adult-like sexual behaviors, language and knowledge;
- Self-injury (cutting, burning);
- Inadequate personal hygiene;
- Substance abuse;
- Depression, anxiety;
- Suicide attempts;
- Fear of intimacy or closeness; and
- Compulsive eating or dieting.
Creating a Safe Environment
Educators can take some key steps to create a safe environment (Shah, 2011; Yáñez, 1998).
- Set clear, detailed and visible policies and procedures that systematically and explicitly detail what constitutes sexual harassment, sexual bullying, sexual misconduct, gender-based harassment and sexual abuse.
- Conduct environmental monitoring, creating a safe environment and culture that enlists everyone in assessing risk and identifying locations of potential risks.
- Establish clear, visible steps of where and who students can go to seek help and guidance, such as the Title IX campus coordinator or counselor.
- Create an environment and culture where students and educators alike will not fear retribution for speaking up.
- Educate parents and caregivers about available resources in the district.
- Train staff to ensure they know what to look for and how to respond.
Silence is the accomplice that allows sexual harassment to take its next victim. Hiding behind embarrassment, shame or fear will not help society progress. We must move forward. As indicated in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, individuals must satisfy lower level needs, such as safety, before progressing to meet higher level growth needs. If the goal is to create strong, creative, self-actualized individuals who flourish within our classrooms, it is imperative that we create learning environments that ensure their safety and well-being.
For IDRA EAC-South assistance please contact us at http://www.idraeacsouth.org/ or call 210-444-1710.
IDRA EAC-South Technical Assistance – Sex and Gender Equity – The IDRA EAC-South’s capacity-building technical assistance can help state and local education agencies in addressing inequities and desegregation issues impacting sex and gender equity. These issues may be self-identified or identified through an active school desegregation court order, an Office for Civil Rights resolution, or an investigation by a federal or state civil rights enforcement agency. Among other benefits, promoting sex and gender equity can help schools ensure equal access to rigorous coursework, a healthier and safe learning climate, and high-quality teaching.
IDRA Sexual Harassment Training: Sexual Harassment and the Law – This workshop is designed to help administrators, particularly principals, understand their responsibilities under the law regarding sexual harassment. The session provides definitions of sexual harassment, information on the two types of sexual harassment, the legislation that governs sexual harassment, a review and discussion of liability and responsibility under the law, and procedures for identifying if a hostile environment exists.
Considerations for School District Sexual Misconduct Policies – The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault is committed to supporting school districts (districts) in preventing sexual misconduct, encouraging reports of such misconduct, improving responses to reports of such misconduct, and complying with applicable federal laws. This document highlights issues that districts can consider when drafting sexual misconduct policies.
National Institute of Justice / CrimeSolutions.gov: Shifting Boundaries – A two-part intervention designed to reduce dating violence and sexual harassment among middle school youth by highlighting the consequences of this behavior for perpetrators and increasing faculty surveillance of unsafe areas. The program is rated Promising. The intervention groups had statistically significant outcome impacts, albeit with mixed results. The most important classroom activity was the hot spot mapping of unsafe areas that informed the schoolwide intervention.
Lipson, J. (Ed.). (2001). Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School (Washington, D.C.: American Association of University Women Educational Foundation).
Office for Civil Rights. (2008). Sexual Harassment: It’s Not Academic, archived pamphlet (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).
Office for Civil Rights. (2017). Sex-based Harassment, website (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education).
Shah, N. (April 4, 2011). “Schools Get Federal Guidelines on Sexual Violence,” Education Week.
Sparks, S.D. (November 7, 2011). “Many Teens Endure Sexual Harassment,” Education Week.
Stop It Now! (2018). Behaviors to Watch for When Adults Are with Children, web page (Northampton, Mass.: Stop It Now!).
Yañez, M.A. (November-December 1998). “Sexual Harassment: Historical Background and Litigation Update,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association).
[©2018, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the February 2018 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]