School — A Safe Haven?November 07, 2011
This post is part of a series focusing on sexual harassment in middle and high school, launched in conjunction with the release of AAUW’s latest research report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, which was supported by the Mooneen Lecce Giving Circle and the Eleanor Roosevelt Fund. Follow @AAUWResearch on Twitter for updates.
All children have the right to be safe at school. Many times, a child perceived as a bit “different” suffers alienation from other students. This child often becomes a target for harassment.
I recall an incident when I was a school principal involving an eighth-grade boy who had been having problems fitting in with his classmates. Dan was struggling academically and had severe attention deficit disorder. His classmates avoided him because of his difficulty in class and his sometimes erratic behavior.
On this occasion, the class had just returned from a three-day trip that involved a long bus ride. Typical of adolescents, the students decided to break up the boredom by participating in some practical jokes. One of these jokes got out of hand when some boys thought that it would be funny to rig the bathroom door so it appeared to be locked but would open when leaned on from outside. Shortly after Dan entered the bathroom, a boy gathered several students to witness the result of his creativity. The door was pushed open, and Dan was mortified to see his classmates staring at him.
What should have ended with an apology became the beginning of a traumatic experience for Dan. Some of the most disreputable students decided to take advantage of Dan’s peripheral status by fabricating what they saw when Dan was exposed in the bathroom. As if being observed while in the bathroom wasn’t bad enough, these students now spread the rumor that Dan was engaged in a sexual act when he was interrupted. Perhaps the macho response to this suggestion would have been a high-five and the comment, “Yeah, I took one look at Susie, and I had to go for it.”
However to Dan, who was already carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, this was the final straw. He started making telephone calls to the students pleading his case and trying to convince them that none of the story was true. Instead of things quieting down, the students were now having a field day dividing into pro- and anti-Dan teams. The parents became involved, and soon Dan’s parents were no longer invited to social events. The situation took a turn for the worse when Dan had a bad reaction to the anti-depression medication he was taking. He started talking about suicide and was eventually sent to a residential facility for a week.
Ultimately, a different medication was prescribed, and it proved effective. Dan was able to return to school and developed friendships with several students. The students involved in spreading the malicious rumor were suspended from school for two weeks and were permanently removed from the football team. If this punishment seems harsh, remember that the school’s responsibility is to protect its students. These actions had a horrendous effect on Dan. He was different, but this didn’t give anyone the right to harass him.
Harassment has no boundaries of gender, race, age, or socioeconomic standing. Anyone can become a victim. It is up to each of us to convince our educational institutions that harassment will not be tolerated.
This post was written by AAUW Director-at-Large Sandy Camillo.