Strategies to address sexual harassment in schools and youth settings

Everyone has a role to play in addressing sexual harassment with youth.

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is a common problem in schools and affects the education of millions of children. According to a report called Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, students who experience sexual harassment report having trouble studying, not wanting to go to school and feeling sick to their stomach. Sexual harassment experts emphasize that everyone can help to address and prevent sexual harassment. Here are some suggestions from the Crossing the Line report:

  • Listen to young people carefully and respectfully. Practice listening non-judgmentally and always avoid victim-blaming. You can build trust with youth by being someone who listens with an open mind and an open heart.
  • Create systems that allow youth to report incidents anonymously.
  • Hold accountable those doing the harassing behaviors. Never ignore the situation, treat it as a joke or encourage the person who is doing the hurtful behaviors.
  • Offer workshops and in-class discussions on the topic for young people and adults.
  • Enforce Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, address sexual harassment in the official organizational plan and create and publicize a sexual harassment policy.
  • Appoint an adult as the contact person students and staff can go to with questions and concerns as they arise. Keep in mind that schools that receive federal funding are required to have a Title IX coordinator whose job it is to take leadership for these issues.
  • Provide clear guidelines and support to staff about how they should handle sexual harassment when it is reported to them.
  • Provide high-quality, in-depth training on sexual harassment for all students and staff, including administrators, educators, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, coaches, counselors, lunchroom and playground aides.

Sexual harassment expert Nan Stein, senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women shares additional strategies for addressing the issue:

  • Offer compassionate responses such as individual or group counseling to the person doing the harassing in addition to punitive consequences.
  • Involve parents in public forums and private conversations about the issues—particularly those whose children have been targets of, or witnesses to sexual harassment.
  • Help protect kids who have been targeted by developing school-based restraining and stay-away orders that pay attention to class schedules, walking and bus routes, lunch times and other aspects of the student’s schedule.
  • Designate several adults as safe, trusted, caring and approachable resources for young people and provide them with training.
  • Integrate the subject of gender violence and sexual harassment into the curriculum and make the discussions engaging, ongoing and age-appropriate.
  • Highlight and use the Oct. 26, 2010 “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights which focuses on bullying and bias-based harassment related to race, color, national origin, sex, gender and disability—as well as the responsibilities of schools and other youth settings that receive federal funding to effectively address these issues.
  • Understand the connections between sexual harassment and domestic violence. Stein emphasizes that schools may be training grounds for domestic violence through the “public performance of gendered violence that is enacted as peer sexual harassment.” If these behaviors are not acknowledged or interrupted in public settings in front of peers and adults, then young people may believe that it’s okay to engage in harassment and violence in their intimate relationships as well.
  • Collaborate with staff from domestic violence and sexual assault agencies.
  • Collect information from young people about their environment through mapping activities that ask them to identify places and spaces where they feel unsafe. Mapping activities like this can be found in Stein’s curriculum called Shifting Boundaries: Lessons on Relationships for Students in Middle School.
  • Don’t confuse bullying with sexual harassment. Doing so obscures the serious nature of these incidents, deflects the organization’s responsibility and potential liability, and moves us away from the discourse of rights that schools and other youth organizations must provide to all young people.

Nan Stein shares additional information and strategies for addressing sexual harassment in a webinar available from Michigan State University Extension called Is it bullying or sexual harassment? Talking and teaching about sexual harassment, bullying and gender violence in schools and other youth settings. In addition, MSU Extension offers many resources to support youth and adults working in partnership to create settings that are emotionally and physically safe. Check out Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments for more information.

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