48% of 7th-12th Graders Were Sexually Harassed Last School Year

After the women’s liberation movement, Title IX, the Gay rights movement, gay unions, and the sexual revolution, you would think students would be more evolved than new research by American Association of University Women (AAUW) titled Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School shows.

This research, described as “the most comprehensive, nationally representative research conducted in the past 10 years on sexual harassment in middle and high schools” paints a disappointing picture of sexually hostile school environments.

Of the 48% of students who reported being sexually harassed in the past school year, 87% said the harassment had a negative effect on them.

Describing the negative effects, 33% said they did not want to go to school as a result of the harassment, and another 33% said they felt sick to their stomachs.  30% said sexual harassment caused them to have a hard time studying, and 19% had trouble sleeping. In every case the harassment had a higher rate of impact on girls vs. boys.

Sexual harassment also affected victim’s school experience. 10% said they got into trouble at school as a result of sexual harassment; 9% said they changed the way they went to or from school (10% of girls and 6% of boys); and 8% quit an activity or sport. 12% of students said they stayed home from school because of sexual harassment, and 4% of students ultimately changed schools.

And this is what was reported about experiences in one specific school year. The report noted that when a longer time span is examined, over 80% of students said they had experienced sexual harassment at least once in their school career (AAUW, 1993, 2001).

Girls were more likely than boys to say that they had been negatively affected by sexual harassment—a finding that confirms previous research by AAUW (2001) and others.

The report also found that “these negative emotional effects take a toll on students’ and especially girls’ education, resulting in decreased productivity and increased absenteeism from school (Chesire, 2004). Thus, although both girls and boys can encounter sexual harassment at school, it is still a highly “gendered phenomenon that is directly and negatively associated with outcomes for girls” (Ormerod et al., 2008).”

Unfortunately, the prevalence of incidents makes “many students feel sexual harassment is normal behavior, and often victims of sexual harassment in turn victimize other children. It’s a vicious cycle that exacts an enduring emotional toll on students.”

Interestingly, 40% of boys reported being sexually harassed, though still at a significantly lower rate than girls (56%) it is higher than most people would have assumed, and reports of harassment among middle school students were actually evenly divided by gender.

Boys were more likely to be the harassers, and children from lower-income families reported more severe effects.

The internet’s role

Overall, cyber-harassment was less prevalent than in person sexual harassment. While the research found that 44% percent of students were harassed in person, 30% reported online harassment, like receiving unwelcome comments, jokes or pictures through texts, e-mail, Facebook and other tools.

12% percent of students were called gay or lesbian in a negative way through texting, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means and 13% of students had sexual rumors spread about them through electronic means.

Many students who were sexually harassed online were also sexually harassed in person. The research also found that students who were sexually harassed both in person and electronically were most likely to be negatively affected by their experiences with sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment isn’t hidden, but it still goes unreported – or misreported

According to the research, only about 9% of students who were sexually harassed reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school (12% of girls and 5% of boys).  Only 27% said they talked about it with parents or family members, and only 23% told friends. Half of students said they did nothing afterward in response to the sexual harassment.

The data shows witnessing sexual harassment at school was also common. 33% of girls and 24% of boys said they observed sexual harassment at school in the 2010–11 school year, and 56% said they witnessed more than one incident of sexual in that time period. Students who witnessed sexual harassment and stepped in to help, they were most likely to tell the harasser to stop or to see if the sexually harassed person was okay.

Many students who witnessed sexual harassment did nothing simply because they did not know how to respond, did not think it would make a difference, or feared that they would become targets themselves.

Misreporting – The researchers make special mention of the issue of misreporting the few incidents that do get reported to schools. Sexual harassment in school is sometimes considered a form of bullying yet distinguishing between the terms is important because they have different definitions and are regulated by different laws. Too often, the more comfortable term bullying is used to describe sexual harassment, obscuring the role of gender and sex in these incidents (Stein & Mennemeier, 2011). The result is that schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment (Gruber & Fineran, 2007).

The help students want

“Our report clearly shows that, in many instances, we are failing to provide the safe environment necessary for our children to succeed,” said Lisa Maatz, AAUW director of public policy and government relations. “Children and their families are too often left to fend for themselves when kids are harassed.”

The researchers asked students for their ideas on how to reduce sexual harassment in their schools and the students were very clear about what they want:

  • 57% want be able to anonymously report problems
  • 51% want schools to enforce sexual harassment policies and punish harassers
  • 39% want a designated person they can talk to
  • 31% want there to be in-class discussions
  • 22% want online resources

Make a difference

As disappointing as this report is, the only way to change the outcome is to acknowledge the problem and change the behaviors. While I don’t think anonymous reporting of sexual harassment is a good idea as this can be used as a terrible form of harassment itself.

It is unacceptable that students today have to plead for schools to enforce harassment policies and actually punish the harassers. It’s unacceptable that students don’t have someone the school has designated for them to talk to, and that sexual harassment isn’t discussed in classes.   And it is unacceptable that many students who witnessed sexual harassment did nothing simply because they did not know how to respond, or did not think it would make a difference.

Ask your students about their experiences in a calm manner and be sure they know they can come to you if there is an incident, and how to report incidents that happen to them, or incidents they witnessed to the school.

Download the full Crossing the Line; Sexual Harassment at School report



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