Cover Story

Katy was 15 when graffiti about her appeared in a boy's bathroom stall. For more than a year, statements like "Katy does it with farm animals" and "Katy is a slut" littered the walls, despite repeated requests from Katy and her parents to have them removed.

The principal responded with "No one reads it, anyhow," and "It'll make you a strong person."

In the hall, boys yelled, "Hey, Katy, I took a leak in your stall today," and girls wondered aloud what she'd done to "deserve" the harassment. Finally, her older brother, home from college, took matters into his own hands and easily removed the graffiti by himself.

Katy's story, recounted by educational researcher Nan Stein, EdD, of Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women, is just one example of sexually harassing behavior that's tolerated too often in American schools every day--whether it's teasing or inappropriate contact. On average, about 80 percent of adolescent boys and girls report being sexually harassed by their peers, according to a study released in June by the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

While harassment takes a toll on all students, it appears to be especially difficult for girls: The report found that girls are more likely to report feeling self-conscious, embarrassed and less confident when they are sexually harassed. Girls are also more likely not to participate in class to avoid being noticed by a harasser.

Armed with these data and others, a growing number of psychologists and educators are working to increase awareness among administrators, teachers and parents about the prevalence of sexual harassment. Their work is identifying how to address it when it occurs, and, more importantly, how to prevent it.

Scope of the problem

According to the AAUW report, Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing and Sexual Harassment in Schools, a third of students fear being sexually harassed in school, while less than half report never being afraid when they go to school. More than a quarter report they often experience sexual harassment.

Such findings are consistent with the handful of other social scientists' findings on the prevalence and severity of physical and verbal sexual harassment among peers.

"What's important is that it's both frequent and perceived to be detrimental by students," says Pamela Haag, PhD, director of research at the AAUW Educational Foundation. "It's not something that students feel they can do much about, but it's something they report disturbs them."

Other research indicates that students with disabilities are more likely to be sexually harassed than their peers and that lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students and those questioning their sexual orientation can experience intense harassment. In May, the Human Rights Watch gave American schools a "failing grade" when it comes to protecting LGB students in its special report, Hatred in the Hallways.

What's even more troubling is that harassment is happening in front of the adults who are supposed to stop it: Students surveyed in the AAUW report said that more than 60 percent of physical and nonphysical harassment happens in front of their teachers, despite the fact that, under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, schools are legally liable when they know of sexual harassment but do not act on it.

"What are we teaching these young people about the appropriate ways to interact with one another when we allow sexual harassment to go on?" asks Linda Collinsworth, a former high school English teacher who is doing her doctoral research on sexual harassment in high schools at the University of Illinois psychology department.

What can be done

Psychologists--whether they are parents or work in schools or the community--have the training to help create school environments where sexual harassment isn't ignored, say Collinsworth and other experts in the field. To address harassment, psychologists can:

  • Find out if their school has a sexual harassment policy. If it doesn't, encourage the school to draft one. Many schools do have sexual harassment policies in place. Hostile Hallways reports that 70 percent of students say their schools have such policies, up from only 26 percent in 1993, the first year the study was conducted. However, since then, students' reports of sexual harassment have not decreased--in fact, boys' reports of harassment have increased.

"If more kids know about the policies and they're still talking about huge amounts of harassment going on, obviously the policies are not working," says Wellesley's Stein.

Indeed, findings from other reports indicate that creating and disseminating sexual harassment policies to students and staff are not enough.

Psychologists and other school staff can make sure their school has concrete plans on what to do if a student brings a complaint and that students know how to file a complaint. For guidance, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights provides several resources (see "Further Reading" ).

  • Help students become aware of the policies and how they can report harassment. If students don't recognize sexual harassment or know how to report it, the harassment can worsen, research shows.

"Prevention needs to be built into the school curriculum and I think we need to start in kindergarten," says Susan Fineran, PhD, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Social Work.

Ron Palomares, PhD, APA's associate executive director of policy and advocacy in the schools, agrees: "If you have programs in the early grades, it's easier to reinforce what's already been done in the middle schools and high schools."

Unfortunately, few sexual harassment prevention programs have been scientifically evaluated. One promising program is Stein's "Flirting or Hurting?" curriculum for grades six through 12 (see "Further Reading").

Stein believes the best way to educate students on sexual harassment is to engage them with a variety of multifaceted education programs. Indeed, many students have said that passive prevention efforts aren't effective. As one student wrote on the AAUW survey: "Do anything but show us another video."

  • Make sure school staff receive sexual harassment training and are aware of the school policy and their obligation under Title IX to enforce it. Every person in a school--from teachers and administrators to students to custodians and bus drivers--should understand and consistently enforce the school's sexual harassment policy. When staff make it clear that they will not turn a blind eye to harassment of any kind, schools create healthier environments for all students.

Stein also encourages schools to identify and publicize a man and woman in each school building whom students can go to with questions about sexual harassment or to file a complaint. Those individuals should receive training beyond what other staff receive on how to assist harassed students.

  • When harassment occurs, address it immediately. "Don't ignore it," says Penny Peterson, a psychologist for Montgomery County, Md., schools. "If you see it on the playground, believe that it is going on in other places. Handle it aggressively."

That means all staff who witness sexual harassment should deal with it based on their school's harassment policy. Psychologists can help school administrators address the situation so that the victim and harasser are treated appropriately. For example, a victim who wears a miniskirt should not be blamed for "causing" the harassment by her choice of clothing, and people accused of harassment must have their rights protected.

It's important to consistently enforce the policies, according to research by University of Illinois's Collinsworth and her colleague Louise Fitzgerald, PhD. Their research has found that when boys believe that girls' complaints won't be taken seriously, girls report more sexual harassment on their surveys.

When a complaint is filed, the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recommends that schools move quickly to determine what happened and explain the grievance process to the student or parent who reports harassment. During the investigation, the school could take interim measures such as separating the students or allowing the harassed student to transfer to another class.

If a school decides that sexual harassment did indeed take place, the school is obligated to make sure that it doesn't happen again. The experts say every case should be carefully documented and reported to outside authorities as necessary.

Most experts advocate for developmentally appropriate discipline since a remark from a 5-year-old may be completely innocent compared with when it's voiced by a 17-year-old. Experts also say it's important to address each case on an individual basis and address the concerns of the harassed student, as well as the perpetrator.

"We have to help [harassing students] to try to get to their goals in more productive ways," says Peterson. "If the goal is to make friends, we can teach kids how to do that. If the goal is to learn about sex, we've got courses about that, too. If the goal is to use power or display anger, there are other ways to manage anger."

  • Get parents and the community involved. Stein recommends that schools offer parent training that draws them into the school sexual harassment curricula before their child is harassed or becomes a harasser.

To help her daughter deal with harassment at school, Christine Nicholson, PhD, a private practitioner in Albuquerque, N.M., founded a mother-daughter group that has been replicated elsewhere in New Mexico. Once a month, mothers and daughters met over dinner to discuss issues from sexual harassment to career planning. Because of the group, "the daughters had a sense of being able to go to adults more," Nicholson says.

And perhaps most importantly, says Peterson, parents need to be "real people" to their children. "Many middle school kids don't really believe that parents have ever had problems."

She suggests that parents talk with their children about some of their own dilemmas, building in a moral that it pays to ask for help when you're in a difficult situation.

Says Peterson: "I encourage parents to go about overtly and covertly modeling how sensitive information can be shared safely."

More research needed

Meanwhile, psychologists and others say they need more research on harassment to develop effective interventions and prevention programs.

In particular, more study is needed on the relationship between the target and the harasser. For example, says Stein, did the student know the harasser? Had they previously dated? Was the harasser trying to date the victim?

Learning about these relationships is important, she says, because harassment is not an anonymous act. If a harasser was once a close friend of the target, she could also experience feelings of betrayal in addition to embarrassment or shame.

Researchers also need to look at the long-term outcomes of students who are harassed. While there are ample anecdotal reports of harassed students experiencing feelings of embarrassment, reduced self-esteem, trouble sleeping, skipping class and getting lower grades, there are few scientific studies of the long-term impact of being sexually harassed. For example, if a girl drops a calculus class because she's being sexually harassed there, will that effect her future math performance? And will avoiding math then affect her career choice?

Answers to these questions, say psychologists, will help the development of better programs to help harassed students deal with perpetrators and to prevent sexually harassing behavior in the first place.

Further Reading

  • Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing and Sexual Harassment In School is available through the AAUW Educational Foundation, (202) 728-7602; Web site: www.aauw.edu; e-mail: foundation@aauw.org.

  • The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights provides resources for schools and parents on sexual harassment, including a pamphlet titled "Sexual Harassment: It's not Academic." (800) 421-3481; Web site: www.ed.gov/offices/OCR/sexharassresources.html; e-mail: ocr@ed.gov.

  • The "Flirting or Hurting?" curriculum is available through the Wellesley Centers for Women, (781) 283-2510; Web site: www.wcwonline.org.

  • Stein, N. (1999). Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools. New York: Teachers College Press.