A few years ago when I was teaching in a large public high school, girls as well as female teachers were regularly touched and insulted in a hallway that was, of course, some distance from the office but was a main thoroughfare to classes. I complained to the principal, who laughed and told me to avoid the hallway. I talked with some of the girls in my classes; they told me that, although they didn't like it, there wasn't any way to stop it. That's just the way things are, they said. I was angry because even as an adult I felt cheapened and demeaned by these teenage boys' behavior and because, above all, no one would understand the seriousness of the situation.
Years have passed and schools have become even more hostile places for girls and at even younger ages. A recent Harris survey conducted for American Association of University Women defined sexual harassment as any "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life." That survey, published as "Hostile Hallways," reported that 76 percent of girls and 56 percent of boys said that they had been subjected to looks, comments, jokes, and/or gestures of a sexual nature. Sixty-five percent of girls and 42 percent of boys reported being touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Nineteen percent had been the target of graffiti on bathroom walls.
School hallways were the site of the sexual harassment for two of three students. More than half reported such incidents occurring in classrooms. Although 18 percent of the perpetrators of sexual harassment are school employees, 79 percent are other students. To make matters worse, fewer than one in ten students (7 percent) told a teacher, most tell no one. Even more distressing, 37 percent of the student perpetrators of sexual harassment say it's just a part of school life and that it's "no big deal."
Recent lawsuits have finally gotten the attention of some school systems. For example, Minnesota requires school systems to write strong sexual harassment policies that include approaches for dealing with student-to-student incidents. That state is also piloting an elementary school sexual harassment awareness program. Such early intervention programs are necessary not only because sexually harassing behaviors are occurring at younger ages but also such behaviors once established are more difficult to change.
The National Education Association Professional Library (P.O. Box 509, West Haven, CT 06516; 1-800-229-4200) has books, videos, and other materials that can help teacher educators and school systems. One such program, "Crossing the Line," presents video vignettes as the basis for discussion and for learning strategies to respond to sexual harassment. Other programs have developed procedures for "victims" to confront in writing their student harassers. Regardless of the program, teachers can take three immediate steps: don't ignore sexual harassment; model good behavior, and confront harassers, telling them such behavior is unacceptable and il legal (Title IX explicitly states that sexual harassment is illegal). Learning cannot take place in a hostile environment, and teachers must come to believe that making their class rooms free of student-to-student sexual harassment is a necessary part of creating a good learning environment.