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Sexual harassment in schools

Tiernan McKay is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. Her writing has appeared in magazines such as Alive!, Occupational Health and Safety, Restaurants and Institutions, Tampa Bay and Arizona Woman. Right now, she is either ridi...

Another tough topic

Sexual harassment has been a significant obstacle in the workplace for decades but today this unwelcome behavior is apparently prevalent in our middle and high schools.
Starting a dialogue with your child
Sexual harassment in schools

On top of all of the other sensitive topics parents must cover with their children, it seems sexual harassment must be added to the list.

Parents may be surprised to learn that sexual harassment is often rampant in schools. Starting as early as middle school, children are teased, taunted or otherwise violated on an alarming scale, leaving many young girls and boys feeling insecure, uncomfortable and sometimes traumatized.

A prevalent problem

Paula Grieco, a mother and founder of What's Your Brave?, has made it her mission to empower children to courageously follow their dreams while equipping parents to support them in the process. Through the development of this empowerment project, Grieco has heard many firsthand accounts of sexual harassment in schools. She says that sexual harassment has always been a factor in schools, but more people are becoming aware of the problem, causing a trend line to spike. In addition, the young age at which harassment starts and the severity of the harassment can be blamed, in part, on the sexualizing of girls in the media and popular culture. “Listen to music, watch television, walk through a mall, it’s difficult to escape the objectification of girls and young women and this is a dangerous and harmful trend,” she says.

Read more: Hollywood sex abuse is rampant, say child stars >>

Crossing gender lines

This isn’t a problem exclusively for girls and their parents. “More girls are affected than boys, but boys are also sexually harassed — particularly those boys that are non-gender conforming,” says Grieco. According to Grieco, sexual harassment can take many forms including verbal (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures), physical (touching girls’ breasts, a boy rubbing his penis against a girl’s buttocks, etc.) or even electronic (via text, email, Facebook, etc.). Parents should address these possible situations in an age-appropriate manner.

A mom says: Please stop sexualizing your kids for your own purpose >>

Take it seriously

Sexual harassment can be a tough topic for parents to tackle but it must be done without minimizing the gravity of the problem. “I feel strongly that parents of boys, in particular, (and I am one) carry the responsibility to raise boys that understand what sexual harassment is, that they alone are responsible for their own behavior, and to create an environment of true gender equality,” says Grieco. “Historically, discussions of sexual harassment and assault have been focused on girls and women being responsible for their own safety. This is important, but we need to also be clear about the seriousness of harassment.” Girls and boys both need to know that school is a place where they should feel safe and protected, not vulnerable and threatened.

Read about kids' resources to fight back against bullying >>

Next steps

Do you want to be proactive about preventing sexual harassment in your child’s school? Great! Grieco provides the following action items to get you started on your worthy mission.

  • Start by simply asking your school what their sexual harassment policy is and whether or not they include the topic of sexual harassment in their anti-bullying or other social programs.
  • Examine your own attitudes about sexual harassment and assault. Kids will model your behavior so be clear that the responsibility for sexual harassment always falls squarely on the perpetrator.
  • All children should be empowered and reminded that their body belongs to them and it is wrong for anyone to touch or talk to them in a way that is uncomfortable — ever. Let them know they can always come to you or you will identify another trusted adult they can talk to if they are not comfortable speaking with you.
  • Create a culture of the “gutsy bystander” by encouraging your kids to speak up if they see sexual harassment in their schools. Giving them very specific words to say or actions to take when they are bystanders provides a concrete opportunity to shift the culture.

The lasting impact of sexual harassment extends well beyond the actual incident(s). Parents can either hope their child won’t be a victim or can empower their child to speak up against sexual harassment in schools with both words and actions. For more information, visit WhatsYourBrave.com or the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

More about tweens and teens

Your body image plays a big role in your kids' body language
Helping girls who have been sexually abused
Teen sexting: What parents can do

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