Schools Grapple With Peer Harassment
The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings brought sexual harassment to the fore. Now the newest battleground is in secondary and even elementary classrooms, where sexual violence is on the rise
BOSTON — EVERY morning in 1988 when her mother dropped eighth-grader Tawyna Brawdy off at school in Petaluma, Calif., a group of between 15 and 30 boys stood at the entrance, "mooing" and taunting her about the size of her chest.
Tawyna at first ignored the behavior, but it escalated.
"It happened before school, in classes, during lunch, after school...at times I got phone calls," says Tawnya, who is now a freshman in college.
Tawyna and her mother appealed to teachers, the principal, and the superintendent to stop the harassment, but no action was taken. "One teacher's response was, `That's just too bad. You'll just have to live with it,' " Tawyna says.
Tawyna's grades fell. She became depressed and no longer wanted to attend classes.
Tawyna and her mother filed a complaint with the Santa Rosa (Calif.) Office of Civil Rights in 1989. Last April, the school district, charged with contributing to the creation of a hostile environment, settled out of court and awarded the Brawdys $20,000.
The Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings brought the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace from the back burner to the front pages. Now the newest battleground is in K-12 classrooms, where studies show most incidences occur among students. Some experts are coining it student-to-student, or peer harassment.
"This is an explosive issue," says Bernice Sandler, a senior associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Women Policy Studies. "I think people recognize the behavior now is not just `boys will be boys' but that this is not good behavior for anybody."
What has ignited the issue is a Supreme Court decision last February. In the case, which involved a Georgia teen who claimed her teacher forced sex on her, the high court ruled unanimously that students can sue for harassment and collect damages under Title IX of the federal Education Act of 1972. Title IX bans sex discrimination in schools and colleges. The Georgia student is suing for millions.
Before this decision, it "was just handslapping if you violated the law. Now we're in the big time," says Nan Stein, director of the Sexual Harassment in Schools Project at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College.
Few studies have examined how often sexual harassment occurs in secondary - and even elementary - schools. Ms. Stein conducted the first study of high school students in 1980. It questioned 200 boys and girls in Massachusetts and revealed that sexual harassment, ranging from verbal and written comments to physical assault and attempted rape, was a typical part of daily academic life.
Students, parents, and experts on the issue say there are cases of sexual harassment in every grade in schools across the country.
"We have kids who are going through what's called spiking, when two people come up on either side [of her] and pull [her] pants down," says Susan Strauss, a sexual harassment consultant in Minnesota.
"We've got one school district in Illinois ... where it's called grab-the-girls-in-the-private-parts week. There's flip-up Friday in Montana where every Friday that's what the boys try to do, lift up the girls' skirts ... We're seeing females harassing females, males harassing males, but predominantly it's males harassing females," she adds.
Ms. Strauss says that while peer harassment is not a new phenomenon, it is increasing. "The amount of violence in our society is escalating, the amount of sexual violence is escalating, and the perpetrators are becoming younger and younger, so we're bound to see that in the schools because they're a microcosm of society," she says.
Since the Supreme Court ruling, many school districts have scrambled to adopt or revamp sexual harassment policies in an effort to protect themselves against huge lawsuits, says Joyce Kaser, director of the Washington office of The Network Inc., an educational think tank based in Andover, Mass.
"I think certainly by the end of this year the majority of schools will have guidelines or policies," says Beverly Lydiard, assistant superintendent at Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District in Lexington, Mass. "They'll have to because they're going to get sued if they don't."
While a good policy defines sexual harassment and outlines an individual's rights and responsibilities, it doesn't completely shelter a school district from liability, Dr. Kaser says.
Two states have laws requiring state-funded schools to have sexual harassment policies. California recently passed legislation; Minnesota adopted its law in 1989. Minnesota has also appropriated $1.5 million to schools for programs to control sexual violence and harassment.
Some experts say sexual harassment policies alone don't go far enough, especially in elementary schools - the newest frontier for cases involving sexual harassment. Stein is concerned that a new California law, which allows schools to suspend or expel pupils in fourth grade and up if they have committed sexual harassment, doesn't include provisions for training. "That's punitive," she says. "What are we going to do - expel kids without training? ... I'm very alarmed at the rush to label a lot of things s exual harassment when kids don't see it that way," she says.
Stein, Strauss, and others advocate sexual harassment training in schools as a preventative measure. In California, Tawyna Brawdy's school district has been ordered to implement a sexual harassment policy that includes "sensitivity" training for all staff and students. "Education is the key," says Tawnya's mother, Louise, who has started a group called Parents for Title IX.
In Tawyna's case, taunting in 8th grade continued into high school, leading to rumors and ruining her reputation. "You could get a million dollars, but there's nothing that can pay you back for what's been taken from you," Louise Brawdy says.