Schools Grapple with Peer Harassment the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Hearings Brought Sexual Harassment to the Fore. Now the Newest Battleground Is in Secondary and Even Elementary Classrooms, Where Sexual Violence Is on the Rise

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EVERY morning in 1988 when her mother dropped eighth-grader Tawyna Brawdy off at school in Petaluma, Calif., a group of between 15 and 30 boys stood at the entrance, "mooing" and taunting her about the size of her chest.

Tawyna at first ignored the behavior, but it escalated.

"It happened before school, in classes, during lunch, after school...at times I got phone calls," says Tawnya, who is now a freshman in college.

Tawyna and her mother appealed to teachers, the principal, and the superintendent to stop the harassment, but no action was taken. "One teacher's response was, `That's just too bad. You'll just have to live with it,' " Tawyna says.

Tawyna's grades fell. She became depressed and no longer wanted to attend classes.

Tawyna and her mother filed a complaint with the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Office of Civil Rights in 1989. Last April, the school district, charged with contributing to the creation of a hostile environment, settled out of court and awarded the Brawdys $20,000.

The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings brought the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace from the back burner to the front pages. Now the newest battleground is in K-12 classrooms, where studies show most incidences occur among students. Some experts are coining it student-to-student, or peer harassment.

"This is an explosive issue," says Bernice Sandler, a senior associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women Policy Studies. "I think people recognize the behavior now is not just `boys will be boys' but that this is not good behavior for anybody."

What has ignited the issue is a Supreme Court decision last February. In the case, which involved a Georgia teen who claimed her teacher forced sex on her, the high court ruled unanimously that students can sue for harassment and collect damages under Title IX of the federal Education Act of 1972. Title IX bans sex discrimination in schools and colleges. The Georgia student is suing for millions.

Before this decision, it "was just handslapping if you violated the law. Now we're in the big time," says Nan Stein, director of the Sexual Harassment in Schools Project at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College.

Few studies have examined how often sexual harassment occurs in secondary - and even elementary - schools. Ms. Stein conducted the first study of high school students in 1980. It questioned 200 boys and girls in Massachusetts and revealed that sexual harassment, ranging from verbal and written comments to physical assault and attempted rape, was a typical part of daily academic life.

Students, parents, and experts on the issue say there are cases of sexual harassment in every grade in schools across the country.

"We have kids who are going through what's called spiking, when two people come up on either side {of her} and pull {her} pants down," says Susan Strauss, a sexual harassment consultant in Minnesota. …