Academic journal article Child Welfare

School-Based Peer Sexual Harassment

Academic journal article Child Welfare

School-Based Peer Sexual Harassment

Article excerpt

Peer sexual harassment in schools is an often overlooked problem that contributes to a hostile school environment: one major study found that 85% of girls and 76% of boys reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in school. This article describes the extent and impact of peer sexual harassment in schools and the responses of the victims, school personnel, and perpetrators to peer sexual harassment. It discusses and analyzes the evolution of peer sexual harassment lawsuits and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning such actions. It concludes steps that social workers and other school personnel should take to prevent or alleviate such problems.

Sexual harassment claims stemming from six- and sevenyear-old boys kissing girls provide ready fodder for the media [Leland 1996]. Although these stories may open up a debate over behaviors that are appropriate for young children, they trivialize a problem that victimizes a substantial number of both boys and girls in U.S. schools. Given that 85% of girls and 76% of boys reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in school [AAUW 1993], peer sexual harassment is often an overlooked problem that contributes to a hostile school environment. Recognizing the severity of this problem, the U.S. Department of Education has included the elimination of sexual harassment within its National Education Goals (Goal Seven), which state, "By the year 2000, every school in the United States will... offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning." One of the seven objectives under this goal states that "every school should work to eliminate sexual harassment" [U.S. Department of Education 1996: xvii].

Social workers and others concerned with the education and, welfare of children should be involved in the elimination of peer sexual harassment in schools. School districts generally have not responded adequately to this problem. Parents, frustrated by this lack of response, which further harms their children, have increasingly turned to the courts as a remedy. Although courts may provide financial compensation to children who have been victimized, this response occurs only after the children have been harmed. Social workers must help to create school environments that are conducive to learning by preventing the harm associated with peer sexual harassment.

This article describes the extent and impact of peer sexual harassment in schools; the responses of victims, school personnel, and perpetrators; and the legal redress available to victims of such harassment. It includes an analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision on the issue and discusses specific actions social workers and other school personnel can take to prevent or minimize school-based peer sexual harassment.

Extent and Impact of Peer Sexual Harassment in Schools

In one of the most extensive studies on peer sexual harassment in U.S. schools, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) [1993] found that 85% of girls and 76% of boys reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment in school. The findings from this study were based on a national sample of 1,600 Caucasian, African American, and Latino students in grades 8 through 11. The most common form of harassment, reported by 65% of girls and 42% of boys, was being the target of sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks. The second most common form of harassment was being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Twenty-five percent of students in this sample reported being targeted "often." This study found that a child's first experience of sexual harassment was most likely to occur in middle/ junior high school and that most incidents of harassment occurred in school hallways and classrooms.

A study by Roscoe et al. [1994] in a middle school in the upper Midwest provides further evidence that peer sexual harassment is a significant problem. That survey, based on a sample of 561 students, found that 50% of the females and 37% of the males reported being subjected to at least one behavior considered to be sexual harassment and that victims of both sexes found sexually harassing behaviors unacceptable. …

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