EIGHTY-ONE percent of 8th- through 11th-grade students surveyed in public schools across the United States have been the target of some form of sexual harassment - ranging from sexual comments to physical contact - according to a study released June 2 by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.
Called "Hostile Hallways," the study is the first national scientific survey of student sexual harassment. The findings are worse than expected, says Alice McKee, the foundation's president. Eighty-five percent of girls and 76 percent of boys report they have experienced some type of sexual harassment.
"Sexual harassment is an epidemic in the schools today," she says. The survey was conducted in 79 classrooms of randomly selected schools across the US and contains representative samples of about 1,600 white, black, and Hispanic students.
Students were provided with a definition of sexual harassment: "Unwelcome and unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with your life."
They were given a questionnaire asking about harassment during school-related times. Fourteen types of sexual harassment, ranging from verbal to physical, were presented.
The most common form of sexual harassment, reported by 76 percent of girls and 56 percent of boys, included sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks. The second most common form of harassment - touching, grabbing, or pinching in a sexual way - was reported by 65 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys. On the more extreme end, 13 percent of girls and 9 percent of boys said they had been forced to do something sexual other than kissing.
"Sexual harassment runs the gamut - from comments to bathroom rape," says Nan Stein, director of the Sexual Harassment in Schools Project at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College.
Ms. Stein, who has been working on the issue since 1979, says sexual harassment in the schools is just as severe as it was 14 years ago."These are the same kinds of behavior kids were talking about then," she says, adding that the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings as well as a number of lawsuits filed against schools, have brought the issue to the forefront.
The most surprising finding of the survey was the high percentage of boys who said they had been sexually harassed, says Ms. McKee. But she emphasizes that girls report experiencing the behavior more often and are more affected by it. A significantly higher percentage of girls than boys didn't want to attend school, found it hard to study, or didn't want to talk as much in class, for example.
The majority of students are being harassed by other students mainly in public areas of schools such as hallways and classrooms. Of the 81 percent who have been targets of sexual harassment in school, 79 percent report the perpetrator was a peer; 18 percent (mostly girls) say they have been harassed by a school employee. But equally disturbing to McKee is that 66 percent of boys and 52 percent of girls surveyed say they have harassed someone.
"If something doesn't happen to stop this, kids will automatically accept the message that sexual harassment is OK," McKee says. "I think kids have a right to expect when they go to school that there should be an environment and climate in which they can learn. This is not a climate that will facilitate learning."
"I have a feeling there will be more research [on sexual harassment] done now that we've sort of set the stage for it and identified the extent of the problem," McKee says, just as the educational community has responded earlier to her foundation's report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls."
But Stein, who was principal author of a write-in Seventeen magazine survey last March that found similar results among girls, says: "We've got corroborative findings. Let's get on with efforts to effect change."