A guest post by Edward F. Dragon, Ed.D.
Sexual Harassment: Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.
The Penn State and Syracuse sex scandal allegations are turning our eyes toward an ongoing issue that administrators and others in our schools would often rather not see.
Like the recent and ongoing tragic – and often deadly – school bullying episodes, these allegations present another “teachable moment.”
Like with bullying, all too often it takes an outrage to teach us and get us back on track. These teachable moments help us to refocus our vision on what constitutes appropriate behavior between students and between teachers and students.
Is it possible to bring an absolute end to inappropriate sexual behavior between a staff member and a student? No.
As the nation is learning from the recent college sports scandals, when it does happen, those who observe the behavior or those who may be victims rarely know how to respond effectively.
When those involved or those who witness the behavior don’t know how to respond, the harassment continues.
What should you do?
School policies prohibit sexual harassment. Read the policy, and you’ll find both a definition of sexual harassment and a clear “Thou shalt not.”
The policy will also tell you how to respond appropriately if you observe sexual harassment occurring, have reasonable suspicion to believe it’s occurring, or are a victim.
Take definitive action.
Here’s the problem: Even when there’s a written policy, those who observe inappropriate behavior or who are victims of such behavior don’t know how to intervene effectively to stop it.
Consider this: “I saw Mr. Frank kissing Jessica this morning in the gym. This isn’t the first time. Their behavior with each other is odd and I heard that they are having sex outside of school. I reported this to my principal and she said she would ‘take care of it.'” Often that’s where it ends.
What should a student victim do?
Know the policy of the school and the state law.
Report any observation or suspicion of sexual harassment or abuse to the appropriate authorities outside of the school.
If you are a student victim, tell a trusted adult and go to the police.
The problem with reporting an incident only to the school administration is that it might end there. There are times when the school will try to protect its reputation over the protection of a possible victim.
When reports are made to the appropriate law enforcement and child protective agencies, the information is investigated without bias toward the institution and with the rights of the victim in clear focus.
AAUW study findings on sexual harassment
A 2011 report by the American Association of University Women, “Crossing The Line: Sexual Harassment at School,” surveyed 1,965 U.S. male and female students in grades 7-12 in May and June of 2011.
Key AAUS study findings include:
- Almost half of all students experienced some form of sexual harassment.
- The most common forms of harassment were unwelcome sexual comments or gestures, derogatory gay or lesbian slurs, and unwanted exposure to sexualized imagery.
- Reasons given for harassment included: “It’s just part of school life/it’s no big deal,” ” I thought it was funny,” and “I was being stupid.”
- Survey respondents thought that the groups most vulnerable to sexual harassment were: more physically mature girls; nonmasculine boys; girls considered pretty; girls not considered pretty; and overweight students.
- Notably, African-American students were more likely than their white counterparts to quit an activity or sport, get into trouble at school, and find it hard to study because of sexual harassment.
- Hispanic students were more likely than white students to stay home from school because of sexual harassment.
- Fifty percent of students said that they did nothing to address instances of sexual harassment they viewed.
What do students suggest?
When the students were asked about approaches to address sexual harassment, respondents supported:
Creating ways for students to report incidents anonymously
Establishing and implementing consistent punishment for harassers, and
Appointing a teacher or counselor as a contact person for reporting incidences of harassment.
Even though sexual harassment has been addressed and schools have policies prohibiting such behavior as one can see from the recent statistics these policies don’t seem to impact this negative behavior.
So, what is the most effective way to end such behavior and protect students? The way to do it is to take action. Understand the policy of the school and follow it.
Victims and bystanders associated with the Penn State and Syracuse sexual scandals would have made a positive impact by appropriately reporting and by not being lulled by the perpetrator or the administration of the school to trust them.
About the author: Dr. Ed Dragan has spent more than 40 years in education as a teacher, school superintendent, and an official in the New Jersey Department of Education. As the founder of Education Management Consulting, LLC he is now a legal consultant and an education expert for high profile school bullying cases. He is a Certified School Administrator and is the author of The Bully Action Guide: How to Help Your Child and How to Get Your School to Listen. (Available at Amazon.com.)
Now go talk to your kids!