Due to the recent sexual harassment stories surfacing about Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, it was interesting to note that a new study surfaced Monday about school-age sexual harassment. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) released a major national study on 7-12th grade sexual harassment. Over nearly 2000 boys and girls from public and private schools were surveyed online in May and June 2011 on whether they had experienced sexual harassment.
The AAUW findings indicate that during the 2010-11 school year 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment in person, electronically via texting (some refer to it as sexting), email and/or social media. One of the reports co-authors, director of research Catherine Hill, said, “It’s reached a level where it’s almost a normal part of the school day.”
It was alarming to me that only 9 percent of students reported incidents to a teacher, guidance counselor or any other adult at the school. Others did report it to parents or friends, yet 50 percent told nobody. When I was principal of a Santa Clara County middle school we developed a school wide slogan that if students see something or hear something or feel something that they deem cruelly offensive or potential for harm to others, they must say something to an adult. We believed that everyone in the entire learning community was obligated to share in keeping the school climate free from harassment or violence of any kind.
I could attest as a former middle school principal that sexual harassment is harmful to a productive educational environment and must be dealt with seriously and consistently. Yet that is not easy to do, especially in these times when we have reduced counselors and support staff from the school environment due to budget cuts. Our children should and must be the most precious resource.
I vividly remember the day almost 10 years ago that my guidance counselor came to talk with me about three girls complaining to her of continued sexual harassment from a popular boy. Their stories to the guidance counselor seemed to be more serious than sexual harassment. In this case, while running in physical education class, far from the teachers’ supervisory gazes, this boy would grab them and touch them on their buttocks repeatedly over a number of days. The girls felt violated, and on this particular they day were in tears.
There are state and federal laws for serious sexual harassment that interferes with a student’s right to an education. Title IX federal regulations also apply. However, in the case above, the counselor and I interviewed the girls, witnesses and the alleged perpetrator. We thought it would be prudent to involve our Safe School Officer, an employee of the local city’s police department, who consulted with his superiors and determined the 8th grade middle school boy may have committed an act of sexual battery.
The penal code defines sexual battery as follows: “any person who touches an intimate part of another person, if the touching is against the will of the person touched, and is for the specific purpose of sexual arousal, sexual gratification, or sexual abuse, is guilty of a misdemeanor sexual battery…” I am concerned that some educators will interpret the report as minimizing sexual battery and subsume it in the context of sexual harassment. Educators must draw distinctions between malicious rumors, lewd cell phone photos and the hands of a perpetrator groping at the intimate part of another person. All are hurtful, some are unlawful and others are criminal. On that fateful day 10 years ago, the boy was arrested and taken to juvenile hall for trial.
There is definitely overlap between issues of bullying and sexual harassment. On Nov. 16, at approximately 6pm at the Ridder Park Drive Office of the Santa Clara County Office of Education, the task force that has been working on the eradication of bullying will give their report and recommendations. The task force was chaired by former San Jose Vice Mayor Judy Chirco, and it included diverse members of the community at-large.
In their report to the Board, they say “it is clear, based on the information culled from the California Healthy Kids Survey Data 2007-09, that there should be concern for the physical and emotional safety of the students in Santa Clara County. The task force also recognized the devastating effect bullying can have on a single child who can feel ostracized to the point of suicide… At the core of the outcomes of the task fore is the desire for a change of the culture in schools and communities where bullying is accepted and/or tolerated.”