In Halls of Learning, Students Get Lessons In Sexual Harassment

Catcalls by the lockers. Groping in the hallways. Reputations destroyed by rumors of sexual promiscuity.

The prevalence of sexual harassment in America's schools - first highlighted three years ago by landmark studies - startled many educators. Since then, school districts have been adding coursework to their curricula designed to teach young people what constitutes appropriate behavior.

The trend is gathering momentum, spurred by a growing number of lawsuits and complaints by one student against another for everything from pinching and grabbing to writing sexual messages about someone on the bathroom wall.

Like much of corporate America, which faces multimillion-dollar lawsuits over this issue, more school districts are feeling impelled not just to write antiharassment policies but to formally instruct students about what peer sexual harassment is and how to stop it.

*Framingham High School in Massachusetts for the past three years has incorporated five lessons on sexual harassment into its 10th-grade health class.

*East High School in Anchorage, Alaska, runs a day-long sexual-harassment workshop for students every other month.

*And at Stevens Point Area Senior High School in Wisconsin, students travel throughout the state putting on a play on peer sexual harassment called "Alice in Sexual Assault Land," a spoof on various fairy tales.

Brooke Ellison, who went through the sexual-harassment instruction last year at Framingham High, says all high schools should have some type of peer harassment training. She has noticed that boys, in particular, have become more aware of how their actions may affect another student. "They're starting to think twice before they do something," she says.

Most school districts, however, haven't gotten that far. Rather, they are still in the process of adopting or rewriting their own sexual-harassment policies and procedures. Many states, including California, now require schools to have such policies in place. The Office for Civil Rights, the branch of the US Department of Education that investigates such complaints, just issued a public statement of its practices on student sexual harassment.

The number of complaints OCR has investigated has jumped from 50 a year in 1990 to 100 a year, says Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Norma Cantu.

The OCR figures buttress reports from teachers and school administrators who say that peer sexual harassment - at all grade levels - is becoming increasingly common and more explicit.

Part of the reason the problem is becoming more aggressive is that teenagers receive conflicting messages about sex from television, music, and Hollywood, says Ellen Linn at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She has written a guide on harassment for teens called, "Tune In to Your Rights." In addition, she says, many parents don't communicate with their children about what is appropriate behavior.

How widespread is the problem?

Two 1993 landmark studies - one by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the other by Seventeen magazine - found that more than 70 percent of middle- and high-school students said they had been sexually harassed by another student. A just-published USA Weekend magazine survey shows similar results: Of more than 220,000 teens, 3 out of 4 said they had been sexually harassed.

Researchers and teachers say peer sexual harassment occurs in the open - in hallways and classrooms - not in secluded corners. Girls experience more harassment than boys, some of which is by other girls.

"You often have to step into the middle of it in hallways," says Ellen Makynen, a family and consumer-sciences teacher at Framingham High School, who helped organize the school's peer sexual-harassment program.

Sexual harassment in school also begins early. A third of all students who have been sexually harassed say it occurred in Grade 6 or earlier, according to the AAUW study.

The impact, researchers say, can directly affect students' school performance. Many pupils who have been harassed say they feel less self-confident and stop participating in class. Some tell of avoiding a particular place in school. And a growing number become too afraid to go to class, or they drop out altogether.

"I was surprised it was going on," says Ms. Makynen. "But it was not news to the kids. They just didn't know what to call it." Name-calling, gesturing, and girls mounting smear campaigns against other girls are typical, she says. "Some of the more scary stuff is bigger, older boys bothering younger girls." One student, she recalls, skipped class for the entire year - and ended up failing the class - because she was being harassed.

No one likes a lawsuit

The studies have prompted some schools to take action, but what has put the issue on the radar screens of many school administrators is the rise in lawsuits since 1992. The Supreme Court ruled that year that students can sue over harassment and collect damages under Title IX of the federal Education Act of 1972, which prohibits discrimination based on sex in public educational institutions.

Since then, about two dozen student-to-student sexual-harassment suits have been filed against school districts nationwide, says Merrick Rossein, a law professor at City University of New York in Flushing. He represents Eve Bruneau in a case that goes to trial Sept. 23. In 1994, Eve, then a sixth-grader, filed a suit against the South Kortright Central School District in South Kortright, N.Y., alleging that she had to leave school because of verbal and physical harassment by some boys in her class.

"A lot of where we are is defined by lawsuits," says Nan Stein, director of the Sexual Harassment in Schools project at the Women's Research Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and co-author of two sexual-harassment teaching guides.

At Framingham High, a student who has a complaint fills out a form confidentially with a trained faculty member or student. Next, the alleged offender reads the form. If he or she agrees to stop the harassment immediately, the case is dropped.

"It has worked every single time except for one," and in that case the offending student had a lot of other behavior problems, Makynen says. In the past two years, 25 complaints have been filed, she says. "We haven't had a repeat offender."

Makynen concedes that in a school of 1,800 students, there's no guarantee everyone is being reached by the anti-harassment instruction. But students say the problem is getting better. "I've even heard kids in the hallway say: 'That's sexual harassment - stop that.' And they do."

Punishments may include requiring the harasser to write a formal apology letter to the harassed student. But the penalty may be more severe. California, for example, passed a law in 1993 that allows schools to suspend or expel pupils in fourth grade and up if they commit sexual harassment.

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