Combating Rampant Sexual Harassment and Assault
by Esther Warkov, Executive Director, SSAIS
#MeTooK12 is a social media hashtag created by the national nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org). The campaign encourages victims of sexual harassment and assault by peers or school staff to share their experiences while they attend K-12 schools. It also encourages secondary victims—the victim’s friends, family, and allies—to share how sexual harassment negatively impacts students. The hashtag spotlights the widespread sexual harassment that students experience before entering college or the workforce, and underscores the urgency of addressing this problem in early education.
SSAIS invited the NWLC, a champion of the students’ civil rights, to partner in this campaign. Their participation continues a series of collaborative efforts that began with President and CEO Fatima Goss Graves’s inaugural blog for the SSAIS website and Director of Education Neena Chaudhry’s appearance in Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! The NWLC website recently featured SSAIS in “Why We Need Title IX to Let Her Learn: A Parent’s Perspective.”
SSAIS encourages the use of #MeTooK12 as the logical continuation of #MeToo and the NWLC campaign #MeTooWhatsNext. Although SSAIS spearheaded the movement to raise awareness of the negative effects of rampant K-12 sexual harassment and assault in the media, the public has yet to connect the dots from K-12 sexual harassment and assault to college and the workplace. Moreover, schools’ failure to protect students from sexual harassment and assault constitute a violation of students’ civil rights under Title IX, a federal civil rights law.
Although #MeToo benefitted from the participation of high profile individuals, K-12 campaigns lack the support they urgently deserve, as SSAIS.org wrote in “Why Lady Gaga Should Be Talking to a Rape Victim’s Mother About K-12 Sexual Assault.” And although reports such as “Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too, Hidden horror of school sex assaults revealed by AP” and “Ending Sexual Harassment and Assault: Effective Measures Protect All Students” demonstrate just how rampant these problems are, the public remains in the dark because violations are under-reported by students, who are forced to normalize sexual harassment, and by schools guarding their reputations. As a result, national studies show a glaring discrepancy between the small number of schools reporting incidents of sexual harassment and the large number of students saying they experience it.
Under the Trump administration and Department of Education leadership, we lack vigorous Title IX enforcement from the Department’s Office for Civil Rights. Since we can’t count on federal oversight we must compel compliance through community engagement. As SSAIS told the Washington Post, the solution requires a massive grass roots education effort to inform families, schools, and local organizations about schools’ responsibilities, students’ Title IX rights, and recourses when schools fail.
Few people of influence understand how sexual harassment and assault devastate the lives of K-12 students, their families, and friends—beginning in elementary school; and the younger the victim, the more devastating the impact and greater vulnerability to repeated assault. Not only do the survivors’ emotional and psychological scars endure long after the incidents, their social lives, education, and career dreams can be shattered. For some, the trauma is insurmountable; sexual harassment and sexual assault have driven an increasing number of adolescents to suicide.
Sexual violence on college campuses and sexual harassment in the workplace occur because students are afforded ample opportunity to practice these behaviors in their formative years. It’s imperative that public figures and celebrities also join the Me TooK12 campaign to end sexual harassment and assault in K-12.
A community problem we can all address
Remarkably, the public does not yet realize that sexual harassment and sexual assault are community problems that extend far beyond the primary victim. Research shows that the majority of teenage students have been affected by peer sexual harassment but rarely seek help. Because schools frequently discount or dismiss reports of sexual harassment or assault, students are discouraged from reporting; many of these victims become perpetrators of sexual harassment. By failing to properly address sexual harassment, schools foster an unsafe climate where sexual harassment and assault occur.
To fill this need, Stop Sexual Assault in Schools created comprehensive free education for the K-12 audience, Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! The streaming video and Action Guide model a collaborative effort where students work alongside parents and community organizations to create safe schools. It follows a high school gender equity club strategizing to address sex discrimination, interviewing nationally recognized education, legal, and LGBTQ experts, and learning from counselors, advocates, parents, and peers. One student concludes that, “When we make change at school, we’re changing society too.”
#MeTooK12: Centering Young Students in the Fight to End Sexual Violence
by Sabrina Stevens, Senior Digital and Mobilization Manager, National Women’s Law Center
A few weeks ago, when #MeToo was first beginning to spread online, I was chatting on a friend’s Facebook wall after she wrote a piece asking whether schools should teach boys to respect girls. Seeing some skeptics already popping up in the thread, I chimed in to affirm her stance, and expand it with some observations of my own:
- When educators uphold sexist dress codes that contain more rules for girls than boys because “boys find _____ distracting,” they are teaching students that girls’ bodies and clothing are more responsible for boys’ actions than the boys themselves. That’s reinforcing rape culture.
- When adults write off sexual rumor spreading and sexist name calling (“slut,” etc.) as teen gossip, instead of correctly identifying it as sexual harassment and intervening [to stop] students from creating a hostile learning environment for the girls targeted by those rumors, they’re reinforcing rape culture.
- When educators fail to respond quickly and appropriately to students’ reports of sexual assault and harassment, and even punish girls for engaging in sexual activity after reporting being assaulted, they’re definitely reinforcing rape culture. This list could, unfortunately, go on for much longer.
- I now work every day raising awareness on behalf of students whose Title IX rights are violated in this manner, and the profession has to do better. I know folks bristle at being asked to “do more,” but this isn’t one of those things where schools are being unfairly asked to address a problem for the rest of society. School-specific manifestations of rape culture abound, and schools HAVE to do something about it. It’s a moral and legal imperative.
I’ve had countless conversations like this well before, but especially after #MeToo began to trend. As a former teacher, a longtime education activist, and a parent, I know all too well that the K-12 space is overdue for a #MeToo reckoning of its own. After all, it’s hard to even go to school every day – let alone focus if you actually make it to class – when someone is making you feel unsafe by snapping your bra, or if you can’t sleep at night as a result of PTSD, or if you’re forced to sit in a classroom with the person who raped you, or if you’re constantly surrounded by your attacker’s friends harassing you in the aftermath. Because sexual harassment, including assault, disproportionately impacts girls and LGBTQ youth, schools’ failure to deal with it disproportionately impacts their educational and economic well-being – precisely the kind of discrimination Title IX exists to prohibit. This is an urgent civil rights issue that schools must address.
College student activists have finally begun to make some headway in getting university administrators to take the problem of campus rape seriously, progress that the sexist extremists advising Betsy DeVos are working very hard to undo. Still, it has remained an uphill battle to get the rest of the educational community and the broader public to recognize that sexual harassment and assault are problems K-12 schools need to address as well. But NWLC’s and others’ research reveals that the shocking statistics that created alarm on college campuses hold for girls under 18; more than one in five girls experience some form of sexual assault before they reach adulthood, with even higher rates for girls with disabilities, girls of color, and LGBTQ youth.
Worse, many of these students do not get the help and support they need to recover and thrive in school. Few student survivors ever report the abuse they’ve suffered to adults, and those who do are frequently met with indifference or outright hostility, as many of NWLC’s student clients and other survivors who have been punished and pushed out of school can attest. As a result, sexual harassment costs too many students critical academic and economic opportunities, further compounding the already immense harm and trauma of being harassed and/or assaulted.
It doesn’t have to be this way. As I’ve said before and will say again, sexual violence is an entirely solvable problem. But to do that, we have to raise awareness of the problem as well as promising solutions, and that’s what #MeTooK12 is all about. We need all school stakeholders – district leaders and administrators, educators, students, families, and community members alike – to be a part of this movement, so we can increase the number of people who understand (and teach!) boundaries and consent, who can recognize and stop abuse when they see it, and who can respond compassionately and appropriately in the (hopefully increasingly rare) event that a student experiences harassment or assault.
We have both the power and the responsibility to keep our children safe, but we can only be successful when we work together. Get started today by reading the resources and reflections shared on the #MeTooK12 hashtag, as well as on our website and our partners’ at Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. Sign up to take action to oppose attacks on survivors’ rights, and to be part of this cultural shift in your community. Tweet and share your own thoughts on how you plan to be part of the solution. Our children deserve safe spaces to learn.