Stopping Sexual Harassment in Schools

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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Note: This article is from our Kidpower “People Safety” Solutions book, Bullying – What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe.

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Addressing Harassment in the Moment

Once, I was teaching Kidpower in an after-school program with children from about eight through 12. When a very pretty ten-year-old girl walked in, several boys in the room started staring at her, whistling, and making suggestive comments about how she looked. The uncomfortable resigned look on this girl’s face gave me the strong impression that this happened all the time, right in front of their teachers.

I didn’t want to put this girl on the spot, but I also had to address the behavior, so I spoke to the class as a whole, “One of our Kidpower ground rules is that we treat each other with respect in order to make our time together emotionally safe. This means not doing things that call attention to anyone in an uncomfortable way. Staring at someone, making noises, and commenting about looks are all disrespectful behavior.”

“But it’s a compliment,” one of the boys muttered.

“I don’t mind,” the girl sighed.

“I mind!” I said. “And it’s not a compliment when people focus on how you look instead of appreciating who you are!”

Since I think that the best management tool for unsafe behavior is to practice doing things safely, I coached all the students and their teachers to practice:

  • Feeling like staring, whistling, or commenting and acting respectfully instead.
  • Speaking up and saying, “That behavior is uncomfortable to me. It’s harassment. Please stop.”
  • Telling a friend who is acting disrespectfully, “That’s not cool! Please stop!”
  • Getting help from a busy distracted adult if you cannot stop harassing behavior on your own.

Later, I worked with the after-school program staff on how to use this kind of behavior as an educational opportunity to build their students’ skills and understanding – rather than ignoring it, wishing it would go away, or lecturing students.

The Scope of the Problem

In 2003, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) commissioned a study by Harris Interactive to survey a nationally representative group of 2,064 students ranging from twelve to eighteen years old about sexual harassment in their schools. This was a follow-up to a similar AAUW study done in 1993.

In the study, sexual harassment was defined as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life. Sexual harassment is not behaviors that you like or want (for example, wanted kissing, touching, or flirting).” “Non-physical harassment” was explained to mean unwanted sexual behavior that does not involve touching such as “taunting, rumors, graffiti, jokes, or gestures.” The study uses examples such as being spied on while showering or dressing.

The findings, reported in the AAUW publication, Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School, indicate that:

  • Eighty-three percent of girls and 79 percent of boys report having experienced sexual harassment. For many students, sexual harassment is an ongoing experience: over one in four students experience it “often.” These numbers do not differ by whether the school is urban, suburban, or rural.
  • Peer-on-peer harassment is most common for both boys and girls, although seven percent of boys and girls experiencing physical or nonphysical harassment report being harassed by a teacher.
  • Thirty-five percent of students who have been harassed report that they first experienced it in elementary school.
  • Most harassment occurs under teachers’ noses in the classroom (61 percent for physical harassment and 56 percent for non-physical) and in the halls (71 percent for physical harassment and 64 percent for nonphysical).
  • Students are perpetrators, too. Slightly more than half of the students (54 percent) say that they have sexually harassed someone else at some time while they were in school.
  • Although large groups of both boys and girls report experiencing harassment, girls are more likely to report being negatively affected by it. Girls are far more likely than boys to feel “self-conscious” (44 percent for girls compared to 19 percent for boys), “embarrassed” (53 percent compared to 32 percent), and “less confident” (32 percent to 16 percent) due to an incident of harassment. Girls are more likely than boys to change behavior because of the experience, including not talking as much in class (30 percent to 18 percent) and avoiding the person who harassed them (56 percent to 24 percent).

Harassment-Free Schools and Work Places

In response to the above findings, the AAUW developed an excellent resource guide for students, parents, and educators titled Harassment-Free Hallways: How to Stop Sexual Harassment in Schools. This free online publication provides surveys for students and staff, educational materials, and policy suggestions to help create a respectful, safe school environment. This guide helps to define the difference between flirting and hurting.

Harassment is against the law in many countries, including the United States. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights publishes an on-line pamphlet titled, Sexual Harassment: It’s Not Academic, that defines students’ rights to a nondiscriminatory, safe learning environment and gives clear definitions of what is and is not considered sexual harassment.

Examples of sexual conduct might include: sexual advances; touching of a sexual nature; graffiti of a sexual nature; displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials; sexual gestures; sexual or “dirty” jokes; pressure for sexual favors; touching oneself sexually or talking about one’s sexual activity in front of others; spreading rumors or rating other students as to sexual activity or performance; etc.

Unlike adults, young people often do not have the choice to leave a school or youth program. Schools and youth programs are responsible for setting high standards about creating an emotionally and physically safe environment for the young people in their care. This means that any kind of harassment or sexual pressure is against the rules and that these rules are enforced.

Many students might not speak up right away because of embarrassment, confusion, or fear of retaliation. A student might be very upset and uncomfortable, but not have the ability to complain. Invited or not, it is against the law for an adult to sexually approach a person under the age of eighteen. It is against the law for an employer or teacher to put sexual pressure on an employee or student or to create or allow a hostile or uncomfortable environment in work or school settings.

Addressing Sexism and Homophobia

Sexual harassment is fed by sexism and homophobia. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, sexism means: “1) prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially, discrimination against women; 2) behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” Homophobia means, “irrational fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals.”

Too often, young people use gender stereotypes and homophobia to make each other miserable. Adults need to address these issues in the moment and through education.

The media is one of the most powerful influences on today’s youth and the Media Awareness Network in Canada has excellent lesson plans for different grade levels on how to teach media awareness skills. In their section, “Gender Stereotypes and Sexual Assault,” they have lessons that include asking what it means to “act like a man” and “be a lady,” how this affects the students’ images of themselves, and how this relates to sexual harassment and violence. They also have lessons on diversity and violence, including homophobia and racism.

To stop sexual harassment, adults must set a good example and speak up about behavior that happens in front of them. If we don’t say anything, we should not be surprised when young people believe that this behavior is acceptable to us.

Once, I was visiting an elementary school and a ten-year-old boy playing tag almost ran into me. His friends all laughed at him, “Hey, you run like a girl!”

I peered at the group of boys over the top of my sunglasses. “I very much hope,” I said sternly, “that you intended the statement ‘you run like a girl’ to be a compliment! Did you?”
The boys squirmed and admitted, “Uh, not exactly.”

Without identifying the boys, I repeated the comment to their teacher. Indignantly, she described the running feats of some great women athletes. This class came up with a plan of noticing joking comments that were actually a form of prejudice and finding examples to prove that the stereotype was incorrect.

In another workshop with a youth group that had asked us to address the issue directly, the pre-teen boys and girls told me that they wanted to throw away the words “faggot” and “gay” and “dyke” because the worst possible insult was for anyone to think that they might be homosexuals.

I said, “I feel very sad when people use prejudice as a way of insulting people. Unfortunately, denying an insult based on prejudice can become a way of making the prejudice get bigger. People used to do this about race and sometimes still do. They do it about size. They do it about looks. They do it about sexuality. Stopping this kind of behavior takes courage, because it is so much a part of our culture. But, whether you realize it or not, people you know are likely to be hurt by jokes about different sexual orientations and identities, even if they pretend that this doesn’t bother them. People you know or someone they care about a lot might be gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgendered, or not sure.

“If someone uses a prejudiced remark to try to put you down,” I continued, “you could throw away their intention to attack you, and say something that is positive without attacking anybody else, like, ‘I’m proud to be who I am.’”

One boy named Dennis said, “But what if I’m not gay and somebody thinks I am if I say that?”
I smiled at Dennis for having the courage to ask and explained, “You would be in very good company. There are many wonderful people who are gay and lesbian. Anyway, does it really matter what someone else thinks? What matters is what you think. You have to think about what kind of person you want to be. Right?”

Dennis thought for a moment and then smiled back at me. “Call me a faggot,” he said. ‘I want to practice how to deal with that remark in a better way.”

I pointed at him and sneered, “You faggot!”

Dennis put his hands up like a fence and said, “Using ‘faggot’ as an insult sounds like prejudice against gay people. I think you are a better person than that!”

Dealing With Unwanted Sexual Attention

When approaching someone about inappropriate behavior, stay centered and clear about your purpose of getting the behavior to stop without attacking the other person. Many people do not realize that their sexual comments, jokes, and other behavior might be harmful to others. They may respond defensively at first because being told to stop forces them to change. The most effective way to prevent getting caught up in someone else’s negative reaction is to focus on what you want to see this person do differently.

When possible, our goal is to empower young people to speak up for themselves in stopping sexual harassment. Because nonphysical harassment is sometimes harder to confront, we often introduce how to set boundaries with staring. Our instructor Greg explains what he’s doing as he stares at Mariana, who keeps moving to different parts of the room, “Imagine that we are two students your age. I have a bit of a crush on Mariana so I keep staring at her. I stare at her in the classroom.”
As Greg stares, Mariana glances at him out of the corner of her eye, makes an irritated face, and looks away.

Greg continues his explanation. “I stare at her in the lunchroom.” Greg stares and Mariana sighs. She glances at him again and he is still staring. “I stare at her when she’s reading in the school library,” Greg says. “She just can’t get away from my staring.”

Mariana goes up to Greg and says, “Please stop staring at me. I don’t like it.”

“I’m not doing anything!” Greg says. “It’s just your imagination.” Greg pauses in the role-play, turns to the class, and asks, “Well, it’s true that I’m not touching Mariana, but am I still bothering her?”

Students’ heads nod. Most of them don’t like being stared at either.

Continuing the role-play, Greg says, “I can look anywhere I want. It’s a free country!”

Mariana says, “Yes it is. And I am free to tell you that I expect you, instead of staring at me, to look the other way. Bothering people like this is against the rules here at our school.”

“Oh all right!” Greg says in an irritated tone. He looks away.

In his role as the teacher, Greg explains, “Feeling that someone looks fabulous is normal. But making that person uncomfortable by staring is wrong. If the person I was pretending to be hadn’t stopped, then Mariana’s next step would be to ask the teacher or another adult for help. She has the right to be at school without being stared at.”

Intervening with Inappropriate Adults

Even though teachers are in a position of power and often work without a lot of support or supervision, most of them are extremely respectful people and very committed to the well being of their students. However, if a teacher does misuse his or her power and behave inappropriately, young people are especially likely to need adult help to address the problem.

When my daughter Chantal was twelve, she was one of only four girls in her advanced math class. She liked learning math, but felt upset because her math teacher kept looking at her in a leering way and making suggestive remarks.

After talking this problem over with her father and me, Chantal told her math teacher the next time he started this behavior, “I feel uncomfortable when you talk about how I look. Please don’t do that.”

Instead of respecting her boundary, her math teacher made fun of her. He increased his remarks and started making drawings with women’s breasts on the blackboard.

Although she didn’t like the idea, I persuaded my daughter that it was important for me to tell her teacher that what he was doing was not okay, not only for her sake, but also for the three other girls in her class.

I made an appointment to meet the math teacher after school and said very respectfully, “I think you’re an excellent math teacher. You may not be aware of some things you’re doing that make Chantal uncomfortable. I think that your teasing remarks about how she looks are just not appropriate.”

The math teacher, who was a large man, seemed to get bigger and bigger and redder and redder in the face as I was talking, until he exploded, “In my thirty-two years of teaching, no one has ever spoken to me like this!”

“Well,” I said cheerfully, feeling thankful for all of my self-defense training, “after thirty-two years, it’s probably about time.“

“Get real!” he snapped. “Your daughter needs to stop being oversensitive when someone just makes a joke! Anyway, who are you to talk to me like this?”

I’m her mother, I thought, and the co-founder of Kidpower! But what I said in a firm quiet voice was, “There are probably women right now who are sitting in a therapist’s office saying that they stopped studying math or other subjects important to them because of that kind of ‘just jokes.’ And there are probably boys who are making girls’ lives miserable by following your poor example. What you’re doing is a form of sexual harassment, and I want you to stop. If need be, we can ask the school counselor to help us understand each other.”

In the face of this adult version of “Stop or I’ll tell,” the math teacher deflated like a pricked balloon.

“I’ll do whatever you want! “ he said. This math teacher then added plaintively, “But I feel bad because your daughter doesn’t like me!”

I sighed. “She might if you’d stop teasing her! However, it’s not her job to like you, and it’s not your job to like her. It’s your job to teach her math, and it’s her job to learn it.”

After that, the math teacher’s behavior changed, and Chantal did well in the class.

Actions to Help Prevent and Stop Sexual Harassment of Young People

  1. Check the policy at your children’s schools and youth programs about sexual harassment. Encourage middle and high schools to do the surveys and follow the policy recommendations of the AAUW or another resource.
  2. Make sure that pre-teens and teens know what kinds of behavior are considered sexual harassment. Review your school’s sexual harassment prevention policy with students and involve them in defining this policy with words and examples that make sense to them.
  3. Make it clear that you do not consider this behavior to be acceptable and that you want to know if it happens to them or to other kids in their school or youth group. Avoid laughing at sexist or homophobic jokes. Intervene to stop sexual harassment instead of overlooking it. Instead of lecturing young people, make them practice acting respectfully and speaking up. Make sure that young people know that they have the right to be treated with respect and the responsibility to treat others with respect.
  4. Ask young people to notice when sexist or homophobic language or images are used in the media, in conversations, in activities, and in books. Help them find people who don’t fit these negative stereotypes.
  5. Help young people become informed consumers of the media. Ask schools to provide media education or use these resources yourself.
  6. As they start to become interested in each other sexually, ask young people to tell you what kinds of attention are welcome and what are unwelcome. Remind them that they have the right to feel any way they do feel, and that they have the responsibility to act in a way that is respectful to other people.
  7. Give young people the opportunity to practice Boundary-Setting skills and Advocacy skills in the context of sexual harassment.
  8. When young people come to you for help, listen to the whole story, brainstorm solutions, and help them make a plan of action. If the sexual harassment does not stop, intervene with the adults who are supervising.


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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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