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Safe in School

Sexual harassment (and worse) is rampant, and there’s still too much silence in our classrooms

November 28, 2016
Safe in School

More than half of all high school girls across America are sexually harassed, according to a 2011 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). These attacks can take many forms, from sexual jokes and comments about girls' bodies, to sexual rumors spread in person or online, to unwanted touching. 

Some abuse goes further still.

Approximately 1 in 10 high school girls report having been forced to have sex, according to a 2015 report by the Center of Disease Control and Prevention.

In college, 1 in 5 young women report that they've experienced attempted or completed sexual assault on campus.

The horrifying prevalence of sexual violence in our nation has been thrown into the national spotlight this fall, with the president-elect joining the ranks of many men — both famous and not — who assert that they have the right to violate women. Media outlets have been gathering alarming reports from social media of sexual harassment in schools across the country, with boys grabbing the breasts and vaginas of girls as young as 10, saying that they now have the right to. These are just some of the many incidents of harassment and bullying reported in the past four weeks.

They are not isolated incidents. As writer Rebecca Solnit describes, sexual violence is pervasive both nationally and globally.

As women, we have begun to break the silence, taking to Twitter and other social media with hashtags like #notokay, sharing stories of the first time we were harassed or assaulted. It’s a start.

But in high schools, there is still too much silence. The 2011 AAUW report found that among the more than 50 percent of high school girls who have been sexually harassed, only 1 in 8 told a teacher or other school staff member. The study reports that boys are also being sexually harassed (40 percent experience sexual harassment), and even fewer (1 in 20) told a teacher.

It is all too easy to imagine the academic effects of sexual harassment on high school victims, but it is worth being specific. In the same report by the AAUW, researchers found that student survivors of sexual harassment were more likely to: have trouble sleeping and concentrating in class; develop depression; drop out of school activities and sports; or skip school entirely or even move schools. This does not even begin to touch on the consequences for survivors of rape.

For me, the national conversation this fall became a classroom conversation.

I have been developing and teaching a new college-style seminar at my high school, called Diversity in America (a course I will describe in greater length in a future post). Our work on gender and women’s rights serendipitously coincided with the national discussion, and in our class we dove into a student-led conversation about the treatment of girls in school.

Listening to my students was difficult. We see sexual harassment, we hear of friends being mistreated, but what can be done? I took an impromptu poll: Who in this room has seen, heard about, or experienced sexual harassment? All hands went up.

We need concrete initiatives here, and we need to implement them in our schools, across our school days. If we are serious about ensuring that girls and women are safe in school — and in our country — we need to address head on how we teach our young men to respect women.

Here are a few ideas:

Curriculum and Training

Safe Place to Learn is an extensive collection of interactive resources and training modules addressing sexual harassment in K-12 schools commissioned by the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault and created by the U.S. Department of Education.

Justine Finn, who just finished a master’s degree at the Harvard Gradate School of Education, has founded Relation-Shift, an organization striving to develop action plans and professional development for K–12 schools to address sexual violence head on.

Mentoring and Coaching

There are a growing number of programs that work in and with schools to train students to be mentors, advocates, and leaders in addressing sexual assault in K-12 schools. Mentors in Violence Prevention directly trains students to be leaders and not bystanders, working in schools across the country and the globe. Coaching Boys into Men capitalizes on the influence of sports coaches in schools, working with them to teach young athletes how to have healthy and safe relationships. Every school in America needs such programs working with its students.


Last fall, New England Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft partnered with Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to create Game Change: The Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership. The program is devoting $650,000 to support training on sexual harassment and violence in more than 90 schools in Massachusetts, and to build partnerships between schools and sexual violence organizations. For this work to happen in all schools across the country, we will need the same type of vision and action nationally.

More than ever, we need to address sexual violence in schools now. We need to ensure that no young man, no student, grows up thinking he has the right to harass or abuse women.

About the Author

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Jessica Lander
Jessica Lander, a high school teacher and a 2015 graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, writes about education for Usable Knowledge, the Boston Globe, and other outlets. For two years, she wrote a regular series of blogs for Usable Knowledge about her experiences as a new teacher. With Karen Mapp and Ilene Carver, she is a co-author of Powerful Partnerships: A Teacher’s Guide to Engaging Families for Student Success.  Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_lander
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Diversity and Inclusion K-12