When It Comes to Bullying and Harassment, Silence Isn’t GoldenJuly 18, 2012
The AAUW Public Policy Department and AAUW members have sent letters to 10 of the nation’s 20 largest school districts asking them to correct their unrealistic reports that there were no incidences of bullying or harassment in the 2009–10 school year. This effort was inspired by Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, a research report that I co-authored based on a comprehensive, nationally representative survey of students in grades 7–12. It may seem counterintuitive that AAUW is targeting schools that reported no bullying or harassment. However, if a school administrator doesn’t record any such occurrences, it probably doesn’t mean that those problems don’t exist at that school. It means that the administrators haven’t been paying attention to the issue.
Sexual harassment and bullying are just a normal part of the school day for many students, according to the data collected in Crossing the Line. Nearly half — 48 percent — of surveyed students experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010–11 school year, and the majority of those students — 87 percent — said that it had a negative effect on them. The effects included not wanting to go to school, feeling sick to one’s stomach, and being unable to sleep or concentrate on school work. For a smaller group of students, sexual harassment at school drove them to drop activities or classes or even to switch schools.
Silence is definitely not golden when it comes to bullying and harassment, and a lack of reporting does not mean that a school is free from these problems. The majority of students who encounter sexual harassment do not report their experiences. In Crossing the Line, nearly half of the students surveyed said that they have encountered sexual harassment at school, but only 9 percent said that they had reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult. Only about one in five harassed students reported the incident(s). To assess the real situation, we need to go beyond what currently gets reported.
AAUW released Crossing the Line in November, which coincidentally was also when the Pennsylvania State University abuse scandal came to light. Last week the Freeh report alleged that Penn State officials turned a blind eye to assaults that happened on-campus. Of course, sexual assault and sexual harassment are not the same thing. But the scandal reiterates how school culture and reputation play a role in creating and sustaining hostile environments for students. Ignoring and tolerating any form of sexual harassment at school sends the wrong message. We need to take steps to prevent and combat sexual harassment at school. Open discussions of these (sometimes awkward) topics are a critical step in the right direction, and Crossing the Line is a great tool to start the discussion at your local schools.
Kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe, so let’s start the next school year off on the right foot. Please help us get this report into the hands of administrators, teachers, and community leaders.