Combating the Epidemic of K-12 Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence

By SSAIS Co-founder and Executive Director Esther Warkov, Ph.D

kyleThere’s a hidden epidemic of sexual harassment and sexual violence in our K-12 schools. Like countless families, we didn’t know about this threat until our tenth grader was raped on a school fieldtrip in 2012. In that year, the CDC declared sexual violence a serious health concern for adolescents. Although journalists have reported on the most glaring cases of sexual violence, no one was talking about pervasive sexual harassment/assault in our schools and its relationship to college sexual violence. So we reached out to The Washington Post’s national education reporter Emma Brown who addressed the epidemic in a front page report “Sexual violence isn’t just a college problem. It happens in K-12 schools, too” and profiled the work of our nonprofit ( Huff Post Senior Education reporter Tyler Kingkade also reported on an emerging movement to address K-12 sexual violence, noting that SSAIS is “putting school districts everywhere on notice: drop the ball when a student reports a sexual assault, and [they’ll] expose it to the world.”

Students are sick of sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, and sexual assault, which infect what should be a safe learning environment. Because sexual harassment has become normative, schools are in crisis. Sex-based harassment causes real emotional, psychological, and economic damage to students. Victims are often forced to attend classes with perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence. Feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at school correlates with declining academic performance, skipping school, and dropping out. Many students never “get over it;” they take their own lives.

Although schools are required under Title IX to proactively address sexual harassment and violence at school, they rarely do. That’s why SSAIS is spearheading a national movement to educate students about their rights and recourses which include filing complaints with the U.S. Department of Education and taking action through an Activism Toolkit. We also encourage students, families, educators, and community stakeholders to explore one simple procedure that prompts school districts to become Title IX compliant.

To raise awareness on how families can combat sexual harassment and violence in schools, SSAIS is spotlighting the exemplary activism of Berkeley High School Stop Harassing (BHSSH). We’re impressed by their student campaign to change the culture around sexual harassment as they illuminate “the many and varied awful incidents students are enduring due to the unresponsive and indifferent school board and administration practices in the face of their obligations under Title IX to provide a safe learning environment,” BHSSH Adult Advisor, Heidi Goldstein summarized. Like schools across the country, “Sadly, the School Board, BUSD Administration, and the BHS Site Administration are continuing to treat issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence as a series of isolated events, rather than the cultural problem that they really are. We are asking these governing bodies for comprehensive student and staff training on these topics and a simplified complaint process, one that students know how to and feel comfortable using,” according to the BHSSH Steering Committee.

Among the group’s many activities is their Story-A-Day campaign in which school board directors receive a daily account of sexual harassment. “As students continue to feel unsafe coming forward when they are hurt, we decided to give them a voice by allowing them to send us their anonymous stories through cards collected in classrooms, Instagram, and the BHS Stop Harassing website.” SSAIS recommends perusing the BHSSH website and viewing their video.

SSAIS asked Heidi Goldstein to provide suggestions for parents of sexually harassed and assaulted students. “First and foremost, stand by your student and get them the help they want to feel safe at school and reassured that you’ve got their back. Understand that school districts approach incidents of sexual harassment, battery or assault as risk management problems; they will do what they can to minimize their exposure and liability and make your problem go away. Your student’s needs are secondary to this in their schema.” SSAIS has seen this play out in countless school districts.

Next, “After an incident parents need to connect immediately with the school site administrator — typically the Principal — and the school district Compliance Officer or Title IX Coordinator to determine next steps. If the school district doesn’t have a Compliance Officer, Title IX Coordinator or other employee explicitly tasked with these responsibilities, parents should insist on a meeting as soon as possible with the Superintendent, who is ultimately accountable for these issues.” SSAIS advises that parents take note if the Superintendent or Title IX officer abdicates responsibility to the general counsel; this is a prohibited conflict, as occurred in our family’s case. Heidi continues:

Parents should be very clear on the remedy they want for their student (example: require the harasser or assailant to transfer out of their student’s class to minimize further exposure) and put this in writing using the district’s formal reporting or complaint processes, which typically require the district to respond to you in writing at regular intervals on their progress and findings. It is often challenging to make the school district step up to its responsibilities so frequent follow up and repetition of your expectations is critical to making progress, as is your ability to push hard on issues of disclosure.

To learn more about what parents can expect when advocating for their students’ rights, how schools minimize and dismiss complaints, and how students are enriched through such activism, read the full interview with Heidi Goldstein.

As families and equity advocates like BHSSH hold schools accountable to Title IX, they must “ensure that Title IX Coordinators exist and that they fulfill their gender equity leadership role,” Feminist Majority Foundation’s Education Equity director Dr. Sue Klein reminds us. While every school district is required to have a Title IX coordinator, finding that person can require several steps. She encourages families and equity advocates to proactively identify Title IX coordinators and hire/train them, when needed. She also recommends “meeting with the Title IX Coordinators and making sure that they have copies of the OCR guidance and that they develop specific accountability and action plans to identify and remediate sex discrimination in their school. They should ensure the collection and analysis of accountability information disaggregated by sex, race, and other pertinent characteristics needed to assure equity.” Schools’ websites must have all relevant information concerning Title IX compliance, as she details here. Dr. Klein insightfully recommends that Title IX coordinators be invited to present their work to community and parent organizations, thereby spotlighting their responsibilities.

If sexual harassment and assault are to be remedied, student, parent, and community involvement is essential. Dr. Klein places importance on forming advisory groups that regularly meet with Title IX Coordinators to address and prevent sex discrimination. “The advisory groups may be established for multiple schools and should include relevant gender equity experts as well as equity advocates within the schools such as union representatives or supportive school board members.” And she recommends “making full use of national gender equity organizations’ websites including the members of the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education and” to inform students of their rights and recourses.

The time is here to both improve outcomes for K-12 students and address the breeding ground for college sexual assault. As Fatima Goss Graves, Senior VP of Program at the National Women’s Law Center, wrote in her inaugural post for the SSAIS website: “If we do not bring a serious focus to the problem of sexual harassment and assault in elementary and secondary schools, it will be nearly impossible to make real progress at any other level of education. Too often the story of sexual violence in K-12 schools shows administrators who are poorly informed about their Title IX obligations or avoid taking the necessary steps required by Title IX to end and prevent future harassment.”

Join us and support a comprehensive education program to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual violence in K-12 schools!