Drawing the line

Guest post

This piece from American Association of University Women member, Donna Seymour, looks at sexual harassment in schools from another vantage point. I’m posting it because it’s imperative that we get the word out, and work with students to find solutions. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comment box!

Drawing the line

The lesson from the latest research on sexual harassment in schools, "Crossing the Line," is that when it comes to students harassing students in a sexual manner, there is no line. Harassment of this nature is so pervasive that our schools, the workplace for our children, is literally occupied by a harassment culture that is as hyper-sexualized as our society, our mass media, and things as basic as our clothing choices for the youngest of our children.

What the Crossing the Line report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), shows is a snapshot from one year in the life of the average student. Nearly 50 percent of all students are experiencing some form of unwanted harassment of a sexual nature during that year.

This study backs up two previous AAUW harassment studies from two previous decades that show the same result, when looked through the lens of the total experience of students during their school years. We have a harassment culture that is so pervasive that not to experience some form of harassment of this type while in school is unusual.

Given this environment in school for our young people, is it any wonder that that we have street harassment? This kind of harassment so saturates our society that women walking down a public street can expect cat calls, rude and offensive remarks, and outright lewd behavior, with no hope of let up. It is to be endured, rather than taking the chance of confronting your anonymous harasser for fear that something far worse will happen.

In the military, harassment of a sexual nature is so pervasive that an October U.S. Government Accountability Office study reported 82 of 583 service members surveyed had been sexually harassed in the last year, but only four had formally reported the incident. The study found that one of the reasons a service member may not report an incident is because it would not be taken seriously. 

The study said the Department of Defense must improve its commitment to preventing sexual harassment. Nearly half of all service members surveyed said they think people they work with could get away with sexual harassment, even it were reported. 

The harassment culture is met by a culture of silence and a culture of endurance. What our children are experiencing in school is playing out on the larger stage of life in America. How do we transform the harassment culture and end its chokehold on our society?

It is past time for the harassment culture to be acknowledged. It is not just “the way things are.” It is something we can face, recognize, reject and change. The Crossing the Line report offers good suggestions for action. 

The students themselves had proactive ideas for reducing sexual harassment in their school, including designating a person they can talk to (39 percent), providing online resources (22 percent), and holding in-class discussions (31 percent). Allowing students to anonymously report problems was a top recommendation (57 percent), as was enforcing existing sexual harassment policies and punishing harassers (51 percent). 

Instead of Crossing the Line, we should be Drawing the Line. Taking these suggestions seriously can and should spur strategies and approaches for responding and preventing sexual harassment in schools.

Donna Seymour, Potsdam, NY, the Communications Director for AAUW-NYS, is a member of the St. Lawrence County Branch, AAUW