WMC News & Features

School sexual harassment: Underreported and ignored

High School Girl
Getty Imges/Photodisc/Jetta Productions

Last July, the years-long struggle of a girl in New Jersey’s Williamstown Middle School came to light in a lawsuit filed against the school district.

The suit claimed that starting in 2012, when the girl was in sixth grade, a classmate had badgered her repeatedly: asking her to perform oral sex, spreading rumors that she performed oral sex for money, calling her names including "whore," "slut," and "sixth-grade slut."

The harassment allegedly lasted for years, escalating to physical harassment. Finally, the girl dropped out of school.

She’s not alone. Experts say that the scope of the problem of harassment in public K-12 classrooms is large, but a dearth of research exists on the topic. That’s in part because of confidentiality rules that surround both investigations and their findings.

But the consequences are serious. “Quite frankly, everything can get called bullying,” said Nan Stein, senior research scientist at the National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center at Wellesley College. “It’s such a large category that you can drive a truck through it. Schools just love to call everything bullying, because it moves them away from the discourse of rights and it de-genders the issue. There’s not enough attention paid to what gets cast as normative conduct that is really sexual harassment.”

Yet it’s not a new issue. Sexual harassment in secondary schools can include sexist remarks and behavior, inappropriate advances, and solicitation or coercion. One 2008 study placed the number of children and teens sexually harassed in school at as high as four out of five. Yet studies on the topic are few and far between.

One frequently touted 2011 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that 48 percent of middle and high school students between the ages of 12 and 18—56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys—reported being sexually harassed at least once during the 2010-2011 academic year. The perpetrators were usually peers.

“Sexual harassment, broadly defined, is common in K-12 schools,” said Catherine Hill, director of research for the AAUW. “Looking at students who experienced either form of harassment [online or in person], we find that nearly one in two students were sexually harassed in the 2010-11 school year.”

Stein has been studying and writing about sexual harassment since the late 1970s. When it comes to analysis of the issue, Stein says, traditional tools like the national survey Indicators of School Crime and Safety fall flat.

“[The survey is] principals reporting on their own schools,” she explained. “They low-ball the numbers, saying that maybe three to five percent of the kids have sexual harassment complaints at their school. The principals don’t have any incentives to tell the truth.”

Further, she says, not many academics are engaged with the issue. Few are digging up information, collecting experiences and making sense of the data. There’s an ongoing dearth of studies on the matter. “It’s very hard to find things out,” Stein said. “Surveys don’t tend to ask the right questions, or they don’t ask the questions the right way.”

From a legal perspective, the Supreme Court has ruled that schools can be liable for monetary damages if students harass each other and no action is taken by school authorities.

Lawyer Kevin Costello, who represents the child plaintiff suing New Jersey’s Williamstown Middle School, says that his firm only takes on harassment and bullying cases in which schools fail to act after misbehavior is reported.

Costello says that his firm fields roughly 300 inquiries annually related to general school harassment, 100 of which specifically involve harassment of a sexual nature. As of this summer, his firm was involved in the litigation of 25 such suits.

Almost all of the cases, he says, involve middle school students.

Typically, he says, schools perform the “easy lifts” of reporting allegations to state authorities, but sometimes that doesn’t go far enough. That’s because the hard part is actually investigating. It can be difficult to ascertain what actually happened, especially when one child’s word is being weighed against another’s.

The impacts of harassment can be long-reaching. While some students are able to shrug off their experiences, the majority experience ongoing negative repercussions, according to the AAUW.

The organization found that a full third of harassed students reported not wanting to go to school, and a third “said they felt sick to their stomach as a result of sexual harassment.” Thirty percent had difficulty studying, and 19 percent had trouble sleeping. Ten percent later ran into disciplinary problems at school, while eight percent said harassment spurred them to stop participating in an after-school club, sport, or activity.

One solution, the AAUW’s Catherine Hill says, is for schools to pay closer attention to how students themselves want to deal with the issue. “Many students are deterred from reporting because they fear retaliation and teasing,” she said. “Over half of the students wanted assurance that their complaints will be taken seriously and that students who harass will be penalized.”

The most popular suggestion offered by students was creating an anonymous reporting system, followed by the establishment of a designated person at school who could field complaints related to harassment. “Nearly one third of students wanted in-class discussions on the topic,” Hill said, “while a quarter recommended that schools hold workshops on sexual harassment. Nearly a quarter of students also wanted information about sexual harassment posted online.”

Washington state’s Vashon Island School District created an online form to field concerns about “sensitive student issues.” School superintendent Michael Soltman said that out of 1,500 students, 40 filed anonymous alerts last year. “They range in substance from students expressing concern about each other, [like] depression/suicidal thoughts, to reports of bullying and harassment,” he said. “We find it to be a useful tool.”

For its part, the U.S. Department of Education suggests that schools take a proactive approach to addressing the issue. First off, school board members, district administrators, and superintendents need to recognize that the problem exists. Schools can execute self-assessments to determine what kinds of problems already exist, and then come up with clear policies and formal grievance procedures guiding reporting. Schools are advised to fully document and report incidents. Educators and school staff can also receive training on increasing awareness of sexual harassment and reporting requirements.

In some schools, students have taken matters into their own hands. A group of young women at Oregon’s Tualatin High School launched their own campaign, #GirlsWithGuts, after becoming dismayed and frustrated over what they said was a lukewarm response from school authorities regarding harassment allegations. In April they launched a website that featured blank submission forms to receive and publish anonymous complaints.

“When I began the initial project and started receiving stories of others’ experiences, it broke my heart,” said 16-year-old #GirlsWithGuts founder Angi Coleman. “But [it] also made it even clearer that this was something that needed the kind of spotlight that I felt like I could shine on it. … We've become very aware that seeking safety and solace in the school system isn't going to get us where it should. When girls are forced to walk down the same halls as their abusers, with counselors telling them that they won't be on their side, we have to take matters into our own hands.”

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