According to a new study sexual harassment appears to be increasing within schools in recent years.
Whether it’s sexual phrases, sexual gestures, inappropriate pictures, or rumors about a classmate’s sexuality, there have been many media reports on more student peer- to- peer sexual harassment incidents happening in schools across the country lately.
For instance, a 9-year-old boy was recently suspended from Brookside Elementary School in North Carolina for two days after using the word “cute” to describe a teacher. Later, the school system said an investigation had determined that no sexual harassment had occurred.
In another recent instance, a 7-year-old Boston boy was also accused of sexual harassment after punching an aggressive peer in the groin after he tried to defend himself.
Yet the media, parents, and school districts are not the only ones taking notice of this trend.
In May and June of this year, the American Association of University Women [AAUW] a national survey that found alarming results on the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools and the impact it had on students during the 2010 to 2011.
The study, known as Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, co-authored by Catherine Hill, found new evidence that students in grades 7-12 often experience sexual harassment within school as well as through social media and text messages.
Of the students who participated in the study, 48 percent of them said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in person or electronically via texting, email and social media.
Additionally, 56 percent of the girls and 40 percent of the boys said they had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment during the school year.
However, the study demonstrates that students usually do not take much initiative to stop the harassment.
Indeed, half of the students who were targeted reported they did nothing to stop it, while only 9 percent reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or another adult.
Many of the students claimed that they did not report the harassment for numerous reasons, including doubts that the reports would have any impact, fears of making the situation worse, or concerns about a staff member’s reaction.
Additionally, the AAUW found that sexual harassment and bullying can sometimes overlap in which youths may be bullied for being perceived to be gay or lesbian.
AAUW has conducted numerous sexual harassment research studies for more than a decade. Yet many say this could be the most noteworthy study on sexual harassment to date.
University of Southern California Social Work Professor Dorian Traube, who studies the decision making processes of adolescents, said she is not surprised by the findings since kids are more exposed to sexual activity due to portrayals on television and within the books they read.
“It may be that we are all more aware of inappropriate and appropriate sexual behavior,” Professor Traube said. “As a result, teens are more apt to report that they are being harassed by their peers, which is a great thing.”
New York University Applied Psychology Professor Niobe Way,, who is a nationally recognized leader in the field of adolescents and in the study of racial and gender stereotypes, said she is also not shocked by the findings: “I’m really not surprised at all. We’re in a national crisis!”
From numerous research studies for her book, Deep Secrets: Boy’s Friendship and the Crisis of Connection, Way suggests that harassment is due to low empathy and disconnection.
“Empathy is deeply linked to gender and racial stereotypes,” she said. “People often do not see each other as ‘human beings’ due to stereotypes. As a result, people start to not care about each other.”
She believes that in order to decrease sexual harassment in schools, teachers and parents need to help adolescents see each other as human beings that are not defined by stereotypes.
“As an American culture, we are less empathetic than we were in the 1980s,” Way said. “Research shows that if parents and teachers would foster empathy, then adolescents would be likely to act in violent ways toward each other.”
Professor Way said she strongly links sexual harassment to a lack of empathy as well as to racial and gender stereotypes: “Stereotyping people is similar to not seeing people as human beings. If you grow up in a culture that doesn’t care about empathy, you eventually do bad things to each other.”
Interestingly, from her findings she also believes that African-American boys and girls experience sexual harassment and bullying from students due to stereotypes within society.
“In the media African-American boys are often portrayed as being hyper masculine and not showing emotions,” she said. “Their classmates might bully and call him ‘gay’ simply for being emotional. Yet often I have found that they were just acting human, being emotional, and expressing themselves.”
In addition, Professor Way said the sexual harassment of African-American girls also often comes from how they are portrayed in the media as being hypersexual: “The media often shows African American girls as not being intellectual or capable. Yet they are complex beings who are humans like everybody else.”
In stopping the sexual harassment incidents among students, the answer seems to center on fostering empathy and punishing students who harass their peers.
For example, the survey asked students for suggestions on how to reduce sexual harassment at their schools. More than half favored systematic punishments for harassers and said there should be a mechanism for reporting harassment anonymously.
Way said parents and teachers need to persistently foster and encourage empathy.
USC Professor Traube also agreed: “There needs to be more robust sexual education for teens in school. The conversations need to be more authentic and there needs to be more guidance. They need to be sending a clear and constant message to teens about respect and showing respect to each other around sexualized behavior.”