Sexual Harassment: When Schools Fail to Act

September 26, 2011

West Milford High School, where Rachael Roykovich is currently a student

This post is part of a new series on sexual harassment in school, launched in conjunction with the upcoming November 2011 AAUW report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for more information. 

When sexual harassment happens in middle and high schools, we expect teachers and staff take the steps to intervene. But what happens when they don’t?

When a cheerleading squad started teasing their teammate for being a lesbian, New Jersey teenager Rachael Roykovich joined in at first but soon decided it was wrong and apologized to her teammate. As the harassment continued, Rachael asked her mother to intervene, and mediation was eventually held by the school’s principal.

That’s good news, right? Well, not exactly. After the mediation, Rachael herself quickly became a target for sexual harassment. Angered that she had alerted her mother, her teammates began teasing her in the hallways. And lewd, sexual comments about her started popping up online.

Rachael’s mother, Rita, asked the school to provide more protection for her daughter, but the principal insisted the matter had been dealt with. It has been two years since the incident, and Rita has had no assistance from the school in helping her daughter cope with the harassment. In the meantime, Rita has contacted the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education to investigate her claims. Rachael, unfortunately, is still ostracized at school and unable to rejoin the cheerleading team.

Stories like Rachael’s are disheartening for a number of reasons. While it is encouraging to know that administrators do step in (like Rachael’s principal did), failing to follow up or address the bigger issue of harassment does a disservice not just to students like Rachael but to the entire school. Experiences like Rachael’s might be treated as isolated incidents between friends, but in reality, sexual harassment and bullying exist as part of a larger school environment.

When schools fail to address sexual harassment and retaliation, it makes it even harder for victims and witnesses, like Rachael and her teammate, to come forward. Making schools safe environments — where students can anonymously report harassment as it happens and where there is little tolerance for any and all forms of harassment — is key to addressing the problem. AAUW has resources for communities and administrators who want to take on this issue. And with our new research report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School coming out this November, we’ll have the most up-to-date information on sexual harassment in high schools.

This post was written by AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund Intern Julie Smolinski.

AAUWguest By:   |   September 26, 2011

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