#MeTooK12: How Can We End Sexual Assault in Schools?

by Beth Hoover, Communications Manager and Violence Prevention Trainer at Power Up, Speak Out! and Domestic and Sexual Violence Services, Red Lodge, Montana.

For too long, survivors have heard that if “something” happened to them – like sexual harassment or assault – it was probably their fault. With the avalanche of survivors coming forward, we’ve started to hear different narratives in media outlets that give educators and advocates hope for change. This hope is largely due to the hashtags #MeToo and #MeTooK12.

Teen dating violence, sexual assault, and sexual harassment in K-12 schools are not new. Yet, many schools still don’t have policies in place to address sexual violence and the hostile learning environment it can create. This oversight exists even though Title IX clearly creates a legal obligation for schools that receive federal funds to address sexual harassment and assault. Unfortunately, legal obligation hasn’t compelled schools to change the culture of sexual violence.

That’s why those of us involved in consent education believe that Title IX is only part of the solution. We believe that schools need to do three things to stop sexual violence. They need to follow policies and laws that provide an education free from sexual harassment and assault. They need to support survivors. And they need to provide education about boundaries and consent. All three of these approaches need to be used together to end sexual harassment and assault in schools.

Organizations like ours are concerned that many schools still don’t provide education about boundaries and consent at the K-12 level. There is evidence to suggest that education about boundaries and consent reduces sexual violence perpetration. We’ve also heard from teachers using our lessons that education can give survivors the necessary language and assurance to tell someone what happened to them. In addition, our culture still reinforces rape myths and false ideas about what constitutes sexual harassment, making it difficult sometimes for students to identify sexual harassment and assault.

One school counselor told us that without education many of her students don’t understand that what happened to them is sexual harassment or assault. She stated, “If you can’t name something, you can’t explain why it was wrong.” For example, one 7th grader had been molested by her step-brother. She knew it wasn’t rape, but she didn’t understand that there were other ways to be sexually assaulted. She knew it felt wrong, but didn’t know how to describe it. So she didn’t tell anyone until after participating in lessons about boundaries and consent. Without the language of “someone crossed my boundaries without my consent,” students don’t know how to explain what a perpetrator did. Having the language to come forward allows them to receive the support they needed from the school, their families, and law enforcement.

Education can also influence bystanders to intervene or speak out when they see sexual harassment or assault. In addition, education ultimately makes it easier to uphold policies and laws like Title IX. When education begins at the K-12 level, students enter the world after high school knowing that sexual harassment and assault are wrong. This can create safer universities and colleges, as well as keeping the behaviors from continuing in the work place.

Students grow up to become many things – principals, school counselors, lawyers, law enforcement officers, judges, school board members. Instead of having to try to educate or convince them as adults that sexual harassment and assault are wrong, they’ll already know that. When the majority of the population truly understands sexual violence, upholding laws like Title IX won’t be such an uphill battle.

Consent education alone won’t end sexual violence. Schools must do a better job of supporting students who report and survive sexual harassment and assault. They must also uphold policies and laws that protect students from sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault. We believe that using all of these approaches together is the only way to ultimately end sexual violence in schools.

If you’re a parent or community member who wants to get involved, here are a few things you could do: