Nicola’s Got Nerve

As the start of the new school year rapidly approaches, some girls are dreading having to go back. They have been subjected to severe sexual harassment by other students in the form of explicit comments, slanderous graffiti, and inappropriate touching. As a result of this unwanted attention, they are often ostracized by other girls, and can fall into depressive and self-destructive behaviors. Sadly, this is not as unusual as it might sound, because girls today are living in a world that has forced them to become sexual much earlier than at any other time in American history. And by “sexual,” I don’t mean just making babies ~ as we know, girls were married at extremely young ages a hundred years ago, and already had large families by their late teens ~ no, instead, I’m referring to the exploitation of women’s and girls bodies as objects/commodities, and way before they have a chance to attain emotional and intellectual maturity. But I digress ~ there are so many underlying reasons for this problem, which we’ll have to explore at another time. Today’s discussion is about the prevalence of sexual harassment in public schools, and what can be done about it.
According to AAUW (The American Association of University Women), an astounding 83% of girls have experienced sexual harassment. Just think about that ~ When we walk out onto the street in New York City, or even take public transportation (known breeding grounds for harassing behaviors), most of the time we expect not to be harassed, and are rudely shocked out of our happy place/complacency by some jerk that sees an opportunity to take our power away. But girls in public schools, according to this report, might fullyexpect to be abused, just by showing up in that environment. It is one thing to endure a one-time violation by an anonymous stranger whom you’ll never have to see again (except maybe in a police line-up, or in court), but another thing entirely to endure repeat abuse at the hands of someone you have to encounter on a daily basis. Shocking isn’t even the word, and actually invites comparisons to torture. This summer, I completed a course in the Human Rights of Women at Columbia University, in which we exposed domestic violence and other forms of continual abuse as a form of torture, because of the ability to take one’s autonomy and power away through repeated episodes of sexual violation. I believe that if there was this understanding of the seriousness what girls are going through in the schools, more direct action could, and would, be taken against it at the school administrative level, if not higher.
So, in the absence of regularly enforced policies, what can girls and their parents do? For starters, it’s about setting boundaries. This blog, and much of the Hollaback! website seeks to empower women in all situations, so that they can escape, or ideally, prevent harm from coming to them. The same principles apply in the school environment, as out on the street. The word “No!” is a powerful ally in self-protection. Standing up to one’s aggressor/bully is never easy, and not always the safest thing to do, but in the right circumstance, can dissuade an abuser from seeing someone as an easy target, “worthy” of repeated acts of abuse. Since sexual harassment of girl students seems to happen most often on school buses (a closed environment, think “subway car”), changing classes (the “hit and run,” when a student is focused on getting to class), or obviously, in the gym and locker room environment, a girl must always be alert to who is in close proximity to her. Getting changed in a bathroom stall might not be convenient, but does work to allow some privacy. And as for riding on the bus, sitting closer to the driver is always the safest option for students being subjected to harassment. But just as in the case of harassment in the workplace, there should be some type of “paper trail” to describe the nature and time lines of individual complaints, if there are repeated incidents, even from different people. School officials cannot readily ignore written complaints without opening themselves up to liability.
Now, let’s look at a scenario where a girl’s complaints might fall on deaf ears, and her school, for whatever reason, refuses to bring a timely and appropriate remedy to the situation, by either limiting contact with the abuser, or taking disciplinary action. Sadly, name-calling and even inappropriate touching is seen as “normal teenage behavior” by many school officials ~ many of whom grew up in a very different, more sheltered time and place, and who therefore seem to lack the sense of empathy needed to protect a vulnerable student. If a harassment situation gets this far, parents have a powerful resource in the Title IX Act Education Amendment of 1972, which guarantees every child the equal right to an education. This has been used successfully in many instances, but not everyone knows about it to take advantage of it. The mere mention of invoking it may actually trigger the appropriate (albeit overdue) response from school officials. But at heart, this is a problem of education ~ just as there are now seminars and school assemblies that openly discuss the problem of general bullying, there needs to be more said about sexual harassment, which seems to be almost exclusively a problem for girls. Public school must be safe if learning and growing is to take place, and more and more girls in recent years have been driven out of this environment towards more expensive single-sex, private institutions. Let’s see how we can deepen our empathy for girls, not only by teaching them how to protect themselves, but by creating safer places where they never have to fear being violated just by showing up. Because, frankly, that should be the very last thing on their minds this September.

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4 Responses

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  1. Arbib says:

    Im not sure if this post’s replies are regulated the same way as those of other posts and if so i know my reply will not be published as i completely disagree with the writer, if you do publish it please strike out this line.

    I find myself in complete disagreement to what you say, not the dry information but the conclusions you reached.

    It seems to me you place the responsibility for not being harassed back at the harrassed person’s door, “move to sit closer to the driver”, “change clothes in the booth” (a known to have failed behavior in both cases as harrassment is done in front of bus drivers and girls are known to take phone pictures of girls in booths who cannot see the photographer, often classmates who do this in return for “protection”), papertrail is invalid in case of minors without an official complaint, and the victim would usually blame themselves (bullying is done on boys and girls alike) or the institution and not the harasser just as it seems to me you do here (correct me if im wrong).

    The way I believe education should address this issue is to give an open stage (like this site and others) in which people (and children are people) can anonymously report abuse and are empowerd to stop street and any kind of harassment by seeing and showing it is wrong and unacceptable.

    I dont believe bullies are irresponsible parts of society who cant controll themselves and therefor would pick on anyone at a whim and all you have to do is move away or take precaution measures to avoid them.

    Bullies are a social problem in my book and as such should be dealt with by social means, by creating a conversation around the problem that shows the wrong in bullying.

    School enviroment is a microcosmus of society, the harrassment we see everywhere is a direct application of what happens at schools, the catcallers of the street are the busbullies of the school, the whistlers and starers of the subway are the creeps who take pantipics under the table at the class to later advertise them or use them for extortion, the grabber is that kid who put glue on the teacher’s chair, and some of you may know that particular kid from your class to grow “right”, but of the other 20 who laughed the loudest will you vouch for them all?

    Unaccepted behavior should be unaccepted at all times, at all ages and for all purposes, its good to remember that when you “snitch” on the bully you are actually doing him a favor (he may not see it that way at first and may even rage for a while, which is why i think the reports should be anonymous and strictly regulated to prevent system abuse)with a wakeup call.

    With the rest of your study I completely agree, continual harassment in a closed enviroment be it school of family is comparable to torture, it leaves the victims with all symptoms of PTSD and creates many of what is today known as social and educational disabilities (not saying its the only reason for them, but one of the dominant as it seems to come from studies on the subject).
    I think the numbers are even higher, and should be terrifying to any parent who sends his children to school.
    Not saying precaution should not be taken, strangers should still not be spoken to, candies not taken from them and taboos about unfamiliar homes kept vigorously but the victims should never be blamed for the crime committed on them.

  2. Enna says:

    When I was at secondary school, I was 12/13 and an older boy, 14/15 pushed me up against a wall and kissed me on the lips. He held my arms. I was very upset and burst into tears. My form tutor saw me and asked me what was wrong and I told her. She had a word with the boy and told me afterwards that the boy had agreed to avoid me and leave me alone. Clearly I saw him around school but I never had any rubbish from him again.

    I was and still am happy with the way the teacher dealt with it. She responded to my distress and there was a good result – hopefully that teenager learnt the errors of what he had done and didn’t do that to another girl again. He did look a bit surprised that I was crying, he clearly didn’t think.

    If this kind of behaviour is nipped in the bud it will stop worse things from happening, like it did with me. Another time someone pinched me on the bum at school and I slapped him, not hard but the teacher asked if I was okay. Clearly she knew something was up.

    What boys and men have to remember if they find a girl or woman attrative they have to be nice, be nice, kind and polite and you are more likely to get the postive attention you crave. If boy/man doesn’t, he should be man enough to take it and move on to someone who consents to give him the attention that he wants. If the man and woman want each other it will be more enjoyable for both involved!

  3. Emma B says:

    I wondered if you had seen this site subwaycrush.net Nicola? Its a site where women take ‘stealth’ photographs of guys they find attractive and other women rate them – is this equality or just flirtatious fun? I heard it mentioned on NPR last week as they interviewed the founders in London, England. One thing they said which I thought was interesting was that they only show pictures of guys as they don’t want to promote street harassment of women! Listen to this piece via the BBC world service from about 33 minutes in http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/p00jszkf.

  4. Prue says:

    That’s a smart answer to a diifcflut question.

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