Since last fall, the viral #MeToo movement has sought to raise awareness around sexual harassment and assault, particularly in Hollywood, media, and other male-dominated industries. But sexual harassment and assault often begin long before adulthood.
Though chronic underreporting and ambiguous definitions make the topic difficult to research, the CDC estimates that by the age of 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused (behavior that includes unwanted touching, fondling, and rape).
The numbers are even worse for harassment, which includes unwanted sexual comments, rumor spreading, and touching. A 2011 investigation found that 48 percent of students reported being victims of sexual harassment in grades 7-12 school in the year prior. A 2014 longitudinal survey found that the lifetime prevalence was higher; 68 percent of girls and 55 percent of boys said they were sexually harassed at some point in high school.
Sexual harassment also decreases student engagement and alienates students from peers and teachers. And it impairs students’ academic performance and achievement, perhaps even to a greater degree than other forms of bullying.
Despite the ubiquity and severity of the problem, a systemic culture of silence, mischaracterization, and failures to report have impeded efforts to tackle the crisis.
“Statistically Impossible:” What Students Say is Not What Schools Report
One major hurdle to stopping sexual assault in schools is the failure to accurately assess the problem.
“Unlike colleges and universities, U.S. elementary and secondary schools are not subject to national requirements for tracking student sexual assaults,” The Associated Press reported in 2017. “But 32 states and the District of Columbia do maintain information, though it is inconsistent and sometimes incomplete.”
According 2013–14 data from the Civil Rights Data Collection, 79 percent of all public schools reported zero incidents of sexual harassment in grades 7-12, an outcome the AAW noted is “statistically impossible.”
Then there’s the issue of self-imposed silence. Of students who experienced some form of sexual harassment at school, only 9 percent reported that incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school. Roughly a quarter of victims told a parent or other family member (including siblings). Similarly, 23 percent of students confided in a friend or peer.
Furthermore, a year-long AP investigation found that even when students do report to schools, educators often mistakenly identify instances of sexual abuse—ranging in severity from unwanted fondling to rape—as other forms of bullying, or even consensual behavior.
“We’re going to have to demand action.”
Part of the reason schools fail to report harassment and assault is the significant pressure they’re under to hide these abuses.
“No principal wants their school to be the rape school, to be listed in the newspaper as being investigated,” Dr. Bill Howe, a former K-12 teacher who later worked on Connecticut’s Title IX compliance until 2015, told the AP. “Schools try to bury it.”
The fact that the involved parties are minors can make reporting an incident a quagmire of legal requirements schools would rather avoid. Other experts say a general lack of public awareness about sexual violence in K-12 institutions contributes to the problem.
“You certainly have administrators who are worried about not wanting to have their school in the news,” Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said in an interview with the Huffington Post. “[But] it really gets to a much broader issue that the general public doesn’t understand the issue of sexual violence or perpetration.”
A new campaign, #MeTooK12, is working to raise awareness about sexual assault in schools . Started by national non-profit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS), the campaign encourages young people who have experienced sexual assault or harassment at school to speak out and take action.
“We’re going to have to demand action, we’re going to have to compel schools to fulfill their obligations to uphold students’ civil rights,” Esther Warkov, co-founder of the nonprofit, said to The 74 Million. “It’s not enough to just talk about what happened. We have to have a course of action that corrects the problem.”
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