Bullying has received intense national attention in recent years (see "Anti-bullying efforts ramp up"). But psychologists say there's an equally serious problem in schools that's not drawing nearly as much attention: sexual harassment.

A troubling 44 percent of female and 27 percent of male middle and high school students report experiencing unwanted sexual touching from another student, according to a 2009 Center for Research on Women report. What's more, only 16 percent of students who had been harassed by a fellow student reported it, says report author, psychologist Lynda Sagrestano, PhD, of the University of Memphis.

It may not be as common as bullying, but school-based sexual harassment may be even worse for students' health and school outcomes, according to a study published in 2008 in the journal Sex Roles.

"Sexual harassment, more so than bullying, diminishes students' trust of teachers …. Sexually harassed students are much more alienated from school than bullied students in terms of thinking about quitting or transferring schools or skipping school," says James Gruber, PhD, a sociology professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

Yet, despite the seriousness of school-based sexual harassment, most schools do not have an administrator trained to investigate sexual harassment complaints and educate teachers and students about how to intervene, says Dorothy Espelage, PhD, a professor of psychology with the department of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"We need more research, we need a better curriculum, and we need to start talking to kids about sexual harassment," she says.

A toxic environment

Sexual harassment in the school environment can lead to a constellation of ill effects for students, says Linda L. Collinsworth, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill. In a 2008 study of 569 students from seven Midwestern high schools that appeared in Psychology of Women Quarterly, Collinsworth and her colleagues found that girls who had been upset by one or more incidents of sexual harassment across a wide range of harassing behaviors reported signs of depression and anxiety.

Both boys and girls who perceived their school as tolerating sexual harassment reported more symptoms of depression, Collinsworth says.

"It's like second-hand smoke," says Collinsworth. "If you're in this environment where there's this tolerance of sexual harassment, it has this effect on you, even if you're not harassed."

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning students are especially at risk for sexual harassment, according to the survey of 522 middle school and high school students published by Gruber in 2008. He and co-author Susan Fineran, PhD, of the University of Southern Maine, found that 71 percent of LGBQ students had experienced sexual harassment in the last year, compared with 35 percent of students overall. "Maybe the real victims are LGBQ students," Gruber says. "They not only report much higher levels of bullying and sexual harassment, but the harm is significantly greater, both in terms of health outcomes and school outcomes."

What can be done

Psychologists and other researchers who study sexual harassment in schools say that key steps to address it include:

  • Educating educators. Teachers and school administrators need more training on how to respond to sexual harassment and its negative consequences, says Nan Stein, EdD, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women.
  • Teaching students. Educators should add class modules teaching students how to spot harassment and the steps for filing a complaint. Schools also need to encourage students to report sexual harassment to a trusted network of specially trained school officials, and stress that they will not face negative repercussions or retribution, Stein says.
  • Enforcing consequences for offenders and supporting victims. Some school systems, such as the Austin Independent School District in Texas, allow students to file for a "stay away" order that requires an offender to avoid contact with the victim on school grounds. And through a program called Expect Respect, victims of sexual harassment are offered individual counseling and an invitation to a school-sponsored support group.