Sexual Harassment in School Takes Its Toll

By Bryant, Anne | USA TODAY, March 1995 | Go to article overview
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Sexual Harassment in School Takes Its Toll

Bryant, Anne, USA TODAY

IN THE AFTERMATH of the Navy's Tailhook hearings, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, and the Bob Packwood scandal in the Senate, Americans have become increasingly aware of, and sensitive to, the problems of sexual harassment in the workplace. Until recently, though, very little was known about the extent or the severity of sexual harassment in American public schools.

Individual cases began surfacing from across the country. In Lakewood, Calif., a group of high school boys tallied points for every girl they had sex with. In Duluth, Minn., boys repeatedly wrote graffiti saying "Katie Lyle is a whore" and other slurs that can't be printed. When a young girl broke up with a boy in Mason City, Iowa, more than 20 students, both boys and girls, taunted her, claiming that she had sex with

The first empirical data on school-based sexual harassment appeared in June, 1993, when the American Association of University Women's Educational Foundation released Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey of Sexual Harassment in America's Schools. This national study, the first of its kind, alerted the American public that the sexual harassment of children while they are in school is a widespread, serious issue.

It was during the process of preparing an earlier study, The AAUW Report: How Schools Shortchange Girls, that researchers first came across some disturbing data on sexual harassment. The AAUW had commissioned the Wellesley Center for Research on Women to analyze all of the available data on the subject of girls in school. including more than 1,300 independent reports and studies. The report revealed a school environment that was distinctly hostile towards girls. While sexual harassment was just one of the many forces contributing to this situation, it is particularly troubling. After all, children are required by law to attend school. They have the right to feel safe.

Several questions were raised: How widespread is the problem? Who is being harassed and who are the harassers? Where is this taking place? How are school children reacting to it? The foundation decided that this was an issue requiring more detailed research and commissioned Louis Harris and Associates to survey more than 1,600 public school students--male and female, African-American, white. and Hispanic--in grades eight through 11.

The survey, conducted in February and March, 1993, was the first major U.S. study of sexual harassment in school. It not only measured the extent of school-based sexual harassment, but also surveyed who the perpetrators were, what motivated them to harass other students, and how being harassed affected emotional health and ability to study.

The results revealed not only a high incidence of sexual harassment in American schools, but also shed light on stereotypical ideas of the victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment. Four out of five of the children surveyed said they had experienced unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior either at school or during a school-related activity. The survey also found that a student's first experience of sexual harassment is likely to occur during the middle school years; 32% of those who have been harassed had their first experience during grades six through nine.

The type of harassment experienced spans a full range of behaviors, from the non-physical, such as receiving sexual comments, jokes, and gestures, the most common type, to the physical, such as being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Girls are subjected more often than boys to every type of harassment except for being shown or given sexual pictures, photographs, and notes; having clothes pulled off or down; being spied on while dressing or showering; and being called gay.

The survey revealed that, of the youngsters who have been targets of sexual harassment, 18% have been harassed by teachers, coaches, bus drivers, security guards, teacher aids, principals, or counselors. One in four girls and one in 10 boys are targeted by an adult school employee.

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Sexual Harassment in School Takes Its Toll


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