Sexual harassment


in schools
Summer break is over and we have sent our kids back to school. I came across an article by Charlotte Hilton Anderson recently that highlighted the problem of sexual harassment in our schools. This article was a good reminder that we talk to our kids about what is not acceptable behavior. I wanted to share an excerpt here:
“Hey, guess what I’m doing right now?” The whisper was so quiet that only “Anna” could hear him. She tensed up, knowing what was coming next. Anna had grown accustomed to this start to her day. As soon as she sat down for her 9 a.m. eighth-grade English class, the boy who sat behind her would begin taunting her. Sometimes he whispered sexual things in her ear and other times he quietly narrated his fantasies about her. When Anna told the boy to leave her alone, she says he made fun of her for not being able to “take a joke.” He also said she should take it as a compliment. The boy was slick when it came to this behavior, waiting until the teacher turned her back or stepped out of the room to interact with Anna. He was so subtle that other students hardly noticed or, if they did, they were likely too uncomfortable to say anything about it. While she had a hard time articulating what was happening between this boy and her, she did know that his behavior made her feel small and invisible. And she felt helpless trying to stop it.
“I was only in middle school and barely knew what sex was, much less sexual harassment and how to deal with it,” a now-21-year-old Anna explains. “He never even touched me but it made me feel sick and dirty, like I did something wrong, and I dreaded going to school every day because of him.”
You may find it hard to believe, but this behavior occurs frequently in schools across our nation.  And it’s not just high schools but also with younger students in middle schools. Twenty-seven percent of middle school girls said they’d been physically or verbally sexually harassed, in a study done by the American Educational Research Association. Most of the time, teachers and administrators chalk it up to bullying; however, this is actually sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is any unwanted touching or talking of a sexual nature, and it can happen in person, on social media, or through private messages likes texts, Instagram, or Snapchat. Under Title IX, a federal civil rights law, any school receiving money from the government must ensure that sexual harassment or sexual violence does not create a “hostile environment.” It can be difficult to identify what harassment is, when it’s gone too far, and what the appropriate consequence is as the specific rules are individual to each school.
“Oftentimes, girls may not even know they’re being harassed”, says Jennie Berglund, a middle-school health and sex ed teacher and founder of Young Women’s Leadership Forum, a group dedicated to helping middle school girls overcome harassment to achieve their goals. “This is because harassment is so often packaged as a “joke,” allowing abusers to toe the line between what is legal and illegal. Abusers may also try to “gaslight” their victims, making them think that they’re crazy for feeling upset.”
Because of these factors and more, about two-thirds of sex crimes never get reported, according to stats from the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). “For young victims, reporting harassment is complicated. To start, being harassed can be straight-up scary and a totally natural response to fear is to freeze up in the moment”, says Donna M. Volpitta, Ed.D., a counselor and founder of The Center for Resilient Leadership. “Sexual harassment and assault is a threat to the brain, triggering the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ response, and often victims will freeze, which leaves them feeling helpless in response to that threat,” she explains. “This helpless feeling can have lasting effects, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harming behaviors like cutting.”
As you are getting into the groove of a new school year, have a conversation with your kids so they understand what sexual harassment is and if they are being harassed, encourage them to tell you, a school counselor or a teacher or other adult who can help. The first step in stopping a cycle of abuse is to report it. The only way to encourage reporting is to have open conversations with our kids where we teach what constitutes sexual harassment, how to handle it when it occurs, and the fact that they have a legal right to a hostile free learning environment.
Crisis Services Jackson County Office serves residents of Jackson County who are in crisis due to domestic violence or sexual violence. For more information or assistance, please call Crisis Services Jackson County Office at 256-574-5826 or our 24 hour HELPline at 256-716-1000.  

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