Sexual harassment is on the rise in schools

Kids experience harassment behaviors at younger ages according to leading sexual harassment expert.

Even though it’s been more than 40 years since the passing of Title IX, sexual harassment in schools continues to be a major issue of concern among educators, parents, students, youth development professionals and sexual harassment researchers. In fact, according to Nan Stein, senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, harassment behaviors among youth are becoming increasingly violent and occurring at younger ages.

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. According to a letter to educators and administrators from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, these behaviors include unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature. The “Dear Colleague” letter as it’s called, goes on to provide specific examples of behaviors prohibited by Title IX including “touching of a sexual nature; making sexual comments, jokes and gestures; writing graffiti, displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings or pictures; calling students sexually charged names; spreading sexual rumors; rating students on sexual activity or performance; or circulating, showing, or creating e-mails or websites of a sexual nature.”

While both boys and girls can be targets of sexual harassment, research indicates that girls tend to be disproportionately impacted. Girls report more incidences of being touched in an unwelcome way; experiencing unwanted sexual jokes, comments and gestures; and being forced to do something sexual. In addition, a national survey of students in grades seven through 12 conducted by the American Association of University Women supports other research that indicates that boys are not as negatively impacted by sexual harassment—while girls report negative impacts including school absenteeism, difficulties concentrating and poor academic performance. Boys are more likely to report being called “gay” in a negative way (and other slurs associated with being gay) and they report being negatively impacted by this type of targeting. The gender differences in experiences and effects of sexual harassment may also vary by age, race, class, sexual orientation and other differences.

Nan Stein’s research also focuses on the connections between sexual harassment and teen dating violence. She stresses that schools may be training grounds for domestic violence through the “public performance of gendered violence that is enacted as peer sexual harassment.” If these behaviors are not acknowledged or interrupted in public settings in front of peers and adults, then young people may believe that it’s okay to engage in harassment and violence in their intimate relationships as well.

You can learn more about issues related to sexual harassment through a Michigan State University Extension webinar that features Nan Stein, called Is it bullying or sexual harassment?: Talking and teaching about sexual harassment, bullying and gender violence in schools and other youth settings. In the webinar, Stein provides several strategies for addressing sexual harassment in schools and youth settings. In addition, MSU Extension offers many resources to support youth and adults working in partnership to create settings that are emotionally and physically safe. Check out Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments for more information.

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