By Teachers, For Teachers
Handling sexual misconduct starts with educating everyone - then action.
Concern about sexual harassment and assault are in the news daily, and that awareness has found its way into the teaching profession too, in strict policies and quiet conversations that are helping students and staff become more aware of the issue. The problem in the teaching profession has gained attention from national media, with in-depth reports by the Associated Press and Atlantic magazine and the public as incidents have come to light. Experts report about a third of teen girls say they’ve been assaulted or harassed, but many other incidents may go unreported, they say. It has many facets – from the way that boys talk to or treat girls in elementary school to students understanding consent in high school when they go on a date – but generally, experts say that there are three key things for those in the teaching profession to keep in mind: Educate, listen and enforce. And those efforts can take place in formal programs for the entire school or conversations between a student and an adult.
Sexual education courses are important, but students can become informed about sexual misconduct in more subtle ways.
One of those conversations happened when Santa Fe AP English teacher Amy Hoff noticed that several students addressed the issue in a regular writing exercise and realized the issue was on their minds. She then established parameters and guided them through discussions about topics such the role of educators in keeping students safe, current prominent rape cases, and the debate about whether women "Provoke" such activity by dressing a specific way. And she talked to the students privately about the issue.
“I know that my school district does have a health course, but sex education is not covered much beyond the basics,” she says.
That's one way educators are getting the message out – by following up on the issue when it arises in a class and letting students carefully discuss it.
Cristina Puri, a counselor at Lincoln (N.J.) Park Middle School, also says teachers can just be careful to listen privately to students when they bring up concerns – questions, have had something happen to them or, perhaps most importantly, when they want to talk about incidents involving others. Experts say that serious infractions – and regular more bothersome behavior -- often are reported by bystanders.
“I think the #MeToo movement has brought some much-needed attention to the importance of speaking out and speaking up,” says Puri, who led student discussions on the issues and organized an assembly on the topics after she and her principal noticed that student formal reports of problems and talk about it ticked up. “I hope that we continue to change the perception that being a victim of sexual assault or sexual harassment is shameful, and I hope it gets all students aware that they need to report concerns. Then we need educators who listen."
She says in middle school she is focusing on issues of harassment and consent, which are important for students that age to understand, and says it is important for material to be age appropriate and in many cases parents should be aware of any information being passed along.
Peer-to-peer sex education has been effective in New Jersey and North Carolina, where a program called Teen PEP has spread to more than 60 schools.
“The learning dynamic can change when the person teaching you is just like you,” says Tom Galan, an adviser for the program at Passaic (N.J.) High School. “There is a visible sense of relief when a teenager realizes they are not the only one going through a particular situation. Compare that to someone two or three times their age talking about sex. The message may be the same, but the delivery is very, very different.”
Education is increasingly taking place in more direct ways in the curriculum. Christopher Pepper is a health educator who helped author a new curriculum for sex education in the San Francisco School District, and advocates for it nationwide. Some schools are modeling their initiatives after his comprehensive, cutting-edge strategy was used with all of the some 57,000 district students. It now more thoroughly addresses critical issues involving consent and sexual preference, he says.
“In the wake of recent sexual harassment scandals, many schools and communities are examining how they talk about consent and healthy relationships. Health class is the perfect venue for those conversations, and now is the time to make sure sex ed is taught sensitively, thoughtfully, and comprehensively in every school,” he says. “Teachers shouldn’t be shy about this.”
Pepper's popular “Be Real. Be Ready” curriculum with 26 lessons for high school students focuses on ways to be “Shame free and non-judgmental” while offering “Developmentally appropriate information about health, sexuality, and relationships at every stage of their lives.” He notes that the district’s efforts to combat sexual misconduct has resulted in the establishment of a wellness center in each school. Students can get information and support at the centers
The Centers for Disease Control also has described characteristics of effective sex education and the WISE toolkit is broadly used by schools. Advocates for Youth has an exhaustive resource center and a proposed curriculum.
“Sexual harassment is under-reported, and then when it is reported it often is not addressed for a variety of reasons,” says Charol Shakeshaft, an educational leadership professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied the issue.
She says first it means that adults should make students feel comfortable that they can talk about a concern because the topics are often embarrassing or they feel ashamed. That should be continually reinforced in schools as a responsibility of all staff, particularly among counselors and social service workers.
"Schools need to do a better job of explaining how students can report an incident and what has to happen when they do," she says. Then it is very important that they follow through and not disappoint students who do report. Credibility on this issue is critical and students are not likely to report if they don't sense their concerns will be addressed.
Counselors should make it clear that students can report the issue to them and repeat that point in classroom talks (even brief reminder visits) with information to parents. Some schools remind students regularly on the announcements that they should report incidents, and some have help lines or "Tip boxes" where issues can be reported.
Esther Warkov, founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS), says too often rules related to sexual misconduct aren't enforced, despite the Title IX federal civil rights law that establishes sexual violence as a prohibited form of discrimination, including in K-12 schools, a position the Obama administration reinforced in 2016. Some experts are concerned that the Trump administration is trying to soften those rules.
She says that too often, students don't understand their rights about the issue and schools aren't quick enough to inform them.
Shakeshaft notes that issues related to sexual harassment or assault can be difficult to resolve and time consuming for administrators and seem bad for a school's reputation. Also, while Title IX has strict guidelines for educators and schools to follow them, they aren't used by police if an incident goes to them. Legal standards are different, and there may be pressure to ignore or downplay an incident, especially in small, tight-knit communities.
Educators must have clearly defined policies and then support and educate students and staff about assault and harassment, about student rights and responsibilities, and about reporting and investigating incidents, Warkov notes. Then they need to make sure that when incidents are suspected or reports are made they follow those guidelines.
"Have a policy in place, make sure everyone knows it and follow it. Then it becomes part of the school culture."
Here are some resources for schools concerning the issues of sexual assault and harassment.