Playin' Too Much
Sexual Harassment in Schools
Urban neighborhoods characterized by entrenched poverty, segregation, physical decay, and crime problems are dangerous places for young women. Leaving aside homicide, they face rates of victimization that are comparable with those of their male peers, and they have gender-specific risks associated with the congregation of men and boys in public spaces and their tendency to view young women through a sexualized lens. However, adolescents don't spend all of their time within their neighborhood and community action spaces: much of their time is spent at school. Thus, in this chapter I turn the attention to girls' experiences with gender-based conflicts in schools, focusing specifically on the problem of sexual harassment.
Youths' interactions within schools, of course, cannot be understood in isolation. As criminologist Denise Gottfredson explains, “Schools are community institutions.”1 They are strongly affected by the larger social processes, resources, and characteristics of the communities in which they are embedded. Schools in impoverished urban communities have limited resources and difficulties in attracting and retaining the most talented educators. In addition, they face unique challenges as a result of competing or inconsistent community norms, limited collective efficacy, and the distinctive needs of many students from disadvantaged contexts.2
These problems are exemplified in the St. Louis Public School District, where the youths in our study were enrolled. For nearly a decade, the district has been under threat of a state takeover as a result of consistently poor student test performance, low attendance and graduation rates, high dropout rates, serious fiscal problems, and accusations of political patronage. It has been characterized as “crumbling,” “failing,” “in crisis,” “in decline and decay,” “perpetually unstable,” and “underperforming [and] violence-plagued.”3 In fact, since the time we began