Combating Sexual Harassment in Schools

genderbasedviolenceAs parents, we worry. It’s in our nature. Our kids’ very first day of school marks a milestone that signals the beginning of their academic career—a journey we are prepared to take with them. We relax as the days become weeks, months and years, but then that nagging anxiety begins to creep back in when our child is on the doorstep of high school.

Pushing through the double doors of high school means ratcheting up your vigilance. It means having more in-depth conversations about topics like the dangers of drug and alcohol consumption, driving while texting and yes, even sex. Sex might be the most difficult topic to speak frankly about, but it’s a conversation worth having, especially given the alarming numbers from the Centers for Disease Control. Among U.S. high school students surveyed in 2013:

  • 47% engaged in sexual intercourse
  • 34% engaged in sexual intercourse during the previous 3 months, and, of these
  • 41% did not use a condom the last time they had sex
  • 15% had engaged in sex with four or more people during their life thus far

But there’s more to discuss than risky sexual behavior. The AAUW published findings of a survey in a report titled, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment in School conducted in the 2010-2011 school year. The survey questioned 1,965 public school students in grades 7-12 about sexual harassment in all its forms; bullying, teasing and touching.

The survey found that about 48% the students in grades 7–12 experienced some form of sexual harassment at school during the 2010–11 school year. Nearly half the students encountered sexual harassment in person and 30% encountered sexual harassment through texting, email, Facebook or other electronic channels. Many experienced sexual harassment both in person and electronically.

You may think once your child has graduated high school there’s less cause for alarm, but that’s unfortunately not true. The statistics for sexual assaults on college campuses are worse than those of high school and have garnered the attention and alarm of students, school administrators and elected officials like President Barack Obama. In response, more focus has been placed on supporting Title IX.

Title IX is a United States Education Amendment that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in federally-funded education programs and activities, which includes all public and private schools, colleges and universities receiving federal funds. A lesser-known part of Title IX requires that every public school designate a person to be the Title IX coordinator. This person should be visible and students and staff can reach out to this person in the event of a discriminatory incident. If a complaint is filed, the coordinator oversees the school’s response to comply with and carry out its responsibilities as laid out in Title IX. They also identify and address any patterns or systemic problems that rise to the surface. In order to do their job successfully, this person must understand the requirements of not only Title IX, but of the school’s policies and procedures on sex discrimination as well. To reduce sexual harassment incidents, training for students must be conducted on Title IX and sexual violence.

k12More and more high school students are actively addressing the issue of sexual harassment and assault through programs such as the SafeBAE program. The SafeBAE program encourages students to form an on-campus group to help educate students on this very sensitive topic. SafeBAE receives tweets from all corners of the country and posts the latest news on topics related to sexual assault. Other programs and resources for students, families and schools include NotAlone, Coaching Boys into Men and Shifting Boundaries.

So, now we ask “What can parents do?”

Ask the principal of your school:

  • Does my school have a Title IX coordinator?
  • Do the students know who this person is?
  • Does the school offer any training for teachers, students and parents?
  • What is the school’s policy on sexual harassment?
  • Do they discuss the sexual harassment policies in health classes?

Most importantly, have a frank discussion with your child. If we partner with our schools to educate our children earlier about the damaging emotional, educational and physical effects of sexual harassment in elementary and secondary schools, maybe we won’t have to worry so much about the first day of school in college.

Bonnie Cannon is a National PTA Board Member, National PTA Health and Safety Committee member and President of Park Hill High School PTA in Kansas City, MO.

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