What the White House Asked Us About K-12 Sexual Violence

by Esther Warkov

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post on April 14, 2016.

The White House VP’s office last month invited four organizations to participate in a discussion of K-12 sexual violence. Everyone present (Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, the American Association of University Women, the National Women’s Law Center, Girls Inc., and the VP’s office) readily acknowledged the gravity of K-12 sexual violence. Yet policymakers and the public remain in the dark. It wasn’t enough that the CDC declared adolescent sexual violence a serious health threat back in 2012. Policymakers—along with the public—haven’t connected the dots: sexual harassment and violence are not isolated events. No, sexual harassment and violence are devastating students’ lives on a daily basis across the country, even in the “best” schools. Students have come to view sexual harassment as normative, and even take blame for sexual assault. Schools routinely downplay or deny reports of sexual misconduct so that students have no incentive to report. Yet, even with limited reporting, the word is slowly getting out. Perhaps it will soon dawn on policymakers—and the public—that college campus assault has its origins in the K-12 breeding ground.

A significant challenge is how to address this unspeakable topic, one which lawmakers and parents are disinclined to face. The White House representative wondered how K-12 sexual violence could be broached and what research exists to support its impact on students’ education. Whether or not sufficient research has been conducted—or can be conducted—shouldn’t prevent the government from remedying this epidemic: everyone in the field knows that sexual violence is taking down students’ lives at an alarming rate. We also know that schools are notoriously non-compliant with Title IX, a federal civil rights law that guarantees an equal education free from sexual harassment and sexual violence. Schools have no motivation to become Title IX compliant since the penalty for noncompliance—withholding federal funds—is not applied. It will take a plethora of lawsuits alongside public outcry to incentivize schools to protect K-12 students from sexual harassment and violence.

While policymakers turn a blind eye on K-12 sexual violence and schools suppress reports of sexual violence, the media must expose this epidemic. Although we’ve seen reports on a few egregious cases of sexual violence, the media has failed to inform the public about the everyday violations that destroy students’ educations and lives. The Washington Post recently reported on the magnitude of K-12 sexual violence and profiled the SSAIS movement to address it. Yet there are countless cases that should be in the news on a daily basis. Consider, for example, media apathy to a press release concerning multiple rapes in an Indiana school district that earned it a federal investigation: not a single news outlet produced an in-depth report on this alarming case. It’s critically important that the media report — even if only from the victim’s perspective — when other parties refuse to cooperate. These brave K-12 survivors and families deserve the opportunity to educate the public just as college students have raised our awareness of campus sexual violence. We are in the dark ages when it comes to the epidemic of K-12 sexual violence. It is the civil rights issue of today’s youth.