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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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