Expert Commentary

Crossing the line: Sexual harassment at school

2011 report by the American Association of University Women on sexual harassment in U.S. schools, including digital harassment on Facebook or through text or email.

A 2011 report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School,” surveyed 1,965 U.S. male and female students in grades 7 to 12 in May and June of 2011. The survey identified patterns of sexual harassment in schools along gender, ethnic and demographic lines, examined digital harassment on Facebook or through text or email, and explored the educational and emotional impact on victims.

Key study findings include:

  • Almost half (48%) of all students in grades 7 to 12 — 56% of girls and 40% of boys — experienced some form of sexual harassment during the 2010-11 academic year. Of these, 44% encountered sexual harassment in person, while 30% reported being harassed via texting, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means.
  • The most common forms of harassment were unwelcome sexual comments or gestures (33%), derogatory gay or lesbian slurs (18%) and unwanted exposure to sexualized imagery (13%). Girls experienced significantly more unwelcome comments, inappropriate physical contact, and physical intimation than did boys.
  • Only 16% of those surveyed admitted that they had sexually harassed others. The majority of male harassers (72%) said that they had sexually harassed a male student; less than one-fifth (19%) said they had sexually harassed a female student. Reasons given for harassment included “it’s just part of school life/it’s no big deal” (44%), “I thought it was funny” (39%), and “I was being stupid” (34%).
  • Survey respondents thought that the groups most vulnerable to sexual harassment were: more physically mature girls (58%); non-masculine boys (37%); girls considered pretty (41%); girls not considered pretty (32%); and overweight students (30%).
  • “Notably, African American students were more likely than their white counterparts to stop doing an activity or sport, get into trouble at school, and find it hard to study because of sexual harassment. Hispanic students were more likely than white students to stay home from school because of sexual harassment.”
  • Fifty percent of students — 44% of girls and 59% of boys — said that they did nothing to address instances of sexual harassment they viewed. When asked about approaches to addressing sexual harassment, survey respondents supported creating ways for students to report incidents anonymously (57%), establishing and implementing consistent punishments for harassers (51%), and appointing a teacher or counselor as a contact person for reporting incidences of harassment (39%).

The study’s authors suggest that “prevention efforts need to address when humor crosses the line and becomes sexual harassment. Moreover, for some students, understanding that sexual harassment can indeed be a big deal for other students is a necessary first step.” The report concludes with a series of recommendations for parents, students, teachers and community groups to prevent sexual harassment and how to respond most effectively when it manifests.

Tags: African-American, Latino, gay issues, sex crimes, youth

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