Shocking numbers of middle and high school students are experiencing sexual harassment.
On my first day of high school I encountered a group of boys leaned against the lockers in the hallway during a passing period. As I walked past to get my math book out of my locker, they yelled out a series of numbers, laughing. At first, I didn’t understand what was going on, but as the days went by and they kept doing it—and began to make explicit comments about my body—I realized they were rating me. What I didn’t know then was that I and my female classmates were being sexually harassed. It’s been a long time since freshman year but the latest study from the American Association of University Women shows that sexual harassment in middle and high schools is alive and well.
The study found that during the last academic year, 48 percent of middle and high school students experienced sexual harassment, 87 percent of whom said it affected them negatively. Girls are still more likely to be harassed than boys; 56 percent of girls reported it compared to 40 percent of boys. The majority of harassment is verbal, including "unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures," but physical harassment is also prevalent. And in the age of texting, email, Facebook, and other social media, nearly 30 percent of students reported being sexually harassed through electronic means.
Perhaps the most troubling statistic is that more than half of students never tell anyone about what’s happening to them. Only 9 percent reported talking to a teacher, guidance counselor or administrator, while 27 percent said they discussed the harassment with their family, and 23 percent with their friends. Given that 44 percent of students who admitted to sexually harassing their peers “didn’t think of it as a big deal” and 39 percent say they were just “trying to be funny," students are pressured to perceive the harassment in the same way.
Sexual harassment makes school an unsafe space—nearly 30 percent of affected students say they have trouble sleeping, frequently feel sick, or don’t want to go to school at all. So school administrators have a responsibility to create a learning environment where students are not subjected to jokes about their body or gossip about who they may or may not have had sex with. Having a blanket sexual harassment policy on campus is a step in the right direction, but words on a wall poster aren't what really makes a difference. The students surveyed suggested that schools designate a person on campus that victims can talk to and hold class discussions about the subject. Fifty-seven percent of students said allowing them to anonymously report problems would help, while 51 percent said they’d like schools to get serious about punishing harassers.
Educating students about what sexual harassment is and creating zero-tolerance policies on campus would certainly make a difference. Let's hope this report spurs campuses to be more proactive about addressing the problem, so that they can become the safe learning environments that they're supposed to be.