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Teen sexual harassment: What you can do about it in your daughter's school

Teen sexual harassment is part of everyday life in American middle school and high school, experienced by almost half of students. Here are actions you can take to empower yourself and your daughter. The first in a series on the topic.

By Guest Blogger / July 11, 2013

High school juniors, members of a charity group of teens fighting the global sex trade of children, promote their cause at a screening of a film about sexual exploitation of girls in the US called "Very Young Girls" at Suffolk University Law School. File, 2008.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor

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“We learned pretty quickly to stay away from that particular stairwell.”

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Guest Blogger

Paula Grieco is an entrepreneur, writer, and mama who has a long-standing passion for worldwide girls’ development and empowerment. She is the former chair of Made by Survivors, an anti-slavery organization, and she lives in Massachusetts with her husband, her daughter and son, and their dog Henry. She blogs at What’s Your Brave.

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As we sat with a group of six female high school students from an affluent community, they shared their freshman year experiences with us: “Ten or so senior boys would line up at the stair balcony during class changes – calling girl’s names, trying to look down their shirts, and even spitting on some girls – which was disgusting.”

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Although school administrators were aware of the problem and sometimes even went to the area where it occurred, nothing changed. “A teacher might just tell them to quiet down, but that was it.”

“It was scary and intimidating…. We just did our best to avoid going to classes that way.”

Some facts on sexual harassment

The research confirms what these young women told us during that recent What’s Your Brave interview circle. According to studies[i], sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools and is experienced by almost half of students. (More girls than boys, but boys account for 40 percent of that number. Non-gender conforming adolescents are particularly vulnerable to harassment).

Examples of harassment include:

  • Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) make up a majority of the incidents.
  • Physical harassment also happens regularly – touching girls’ breasts, a boy rubbing his penis against a girl’s buttocks, etc.
  • Hallway “gauntlets” similar to the one articulated above
  • Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means such as using derogatory language to spread a sexual rumor about a girl.

Perhaps, like many of us, you think this is not something that would happen in your local school. Unfortunately, no particular demographic makes your school or town exempt. As just one example, the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center (BARCC) recently conducted surveys in a cross-section of schools including middle class, at-risk, affluent, and academically high-performing. All cities and towns reported similar incidents.

The Impact

This harmful environment takes a toll on girls – in particular – resulting in increased absenteeism, trouble sleeping, and decreased productivity and academic performance. As Melissa articulated, it also gives the girls a clear message that has a ripple effect on their lives in general: “There is no place for me. I have no say over my body. I do not have power over my life.”

As parents, it is hard not to feel helpless … or if we are honest, ready to take someone down, when reading these statistics and hearing first-hand accounts of the realities of daily school life for many young women. But before you get in your car to drive to your daughter’s school, take a breath, because there is some good news and you can help.

Change is Possible

That’s right. There is hope and a significant amount of it too. There are many experts and professionals working hard to change this culture. For example, Nan Stein, a well-regarded researcher in this area for preteens and teens, has developed programs that are proving to be effective in significantly decreasing sexual harassment and violence in our schools.

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