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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
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.
Pep talk for parents engaging in this series:

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

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.”

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.

Building safety practices provide the biggest positive impact: temporary school-based stay-away orders, assignment of school faculty and safety personal to monitor unsafe areas, and the use of posters for education. In conjunction with building safety, a classroom curriculum adds to the reduction of sexual harassment and violence. Topics covered in the classroom emphasize consequences to the harasser, communicating boundaries, and the role of the bystander.[ii]

And most importantly, students have suggestions too – allowing them to anonymously report a problem was at the top of their list. Also high on teens’ lists are enforcing policies and punishing harassers.[iii]

What really struck us about these solutions is how much adults can impact the culture, and further how uncomplicated they are to implement and enforce.

Parents Need to Be Part of Solution

As parents, we can step up to create a tipping point. (A tipping point is the point at which the buildup of minor changes or incidents reaches a level that triggers a more significant change – the cultural shift on smoking in public is one good example.)

Isn’t it time to stop suggesting that our daughters find another hallway to get to class?

If you’re in, let’s get started. Take just a few minutes to complete one or both of the Take 5 actions below.

What you can do right now: Two practical take 5 actions

1. Observe your own attitudes and language about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. Think about your own attitudes about sexual harassment and violence. What messages are your actions and attitudes projecting to your daughter? Do you ever find yourself judging or criticizing women based on their appearance? Do you give the indirect or direct message that the survivor of sexual assault or harassment is wholly or partially to blame because of the way she was dressed, how she acted, where she was, etc.? Just asking a question about what a victim is wearing, for example, sends a blaming message.

2. E-mail or call your daughter's school and simply ask for a copy of their sexual harassment policy. If you have a student handbook, you may find it there. Being respectful, polite but direct will yield the best results. An initial e-mail can be as simple as:

I (we) have started to educate myself (ourselves) on sexual harassment and assault in middle and high school. I just read that research shows how a strong and well-enforced school policy on sexual harassment and violence can drastically reduce its occurrence. After seeing that, I realized that I should be more familiar with what our school's policy is in this area. Would you please send me or let me know where I can find our school's complete policy on sexual harassment and assault?

Thank you so much for your help on this matter and all that you do to support our children's wellbeing. 

Hint: Enlist a few other parents to join you if this feels intimidating. Knowing someone has your back is empowering. 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Please remember that this blog series is not meant to replace professional support for you or any individual. If you have any concerns whatsoever about your welfare and safety or that of anyone around you, please seek medical or other professional help immediately.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Paula Grieco blogs at What’s Your Brave .

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