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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1993
Vol. 51
No. 3

Addressing Sexual Harassment in the Classroom

Helping junior high school students sort out the issues of sexual harassment educated some adults as well.

When charges of sexual harassment ricocheted around my 8th grade American History classroom, I felt the earth open beneath me. We were discussing Edmund Ross's courage in voting against Johnson's impeachment when one girl began shouting, “Sexual harassment! He's sexually harassing me!”
“That's not harassment! I was only joking!”
“What did he do?”
“He's a jerk!”
“You can't get in trouble for that!”
“Hey, kids, settle down.... One at a time....”
One boy had made an obscene gesture, and polite students rapidly turned rude and crude. They accused each other of sexual harassment, using the term as if they understood it. Suddenly the agenda changed, and I was no longer in control.
“Girls love it; they just don't want to admit it!”
“Girls don't like getting their butts grabbed, you moron!”
“We can talk about this, but....”
“Guys can't get harassed unless they have an erection!”
“Oh, you're going to the dean now! You can't say erection in class!”
I think they heard me say that guys can be harassed, with or without an erection, but they were too busy slinging mud to hear much else. According to the girls, guys were harassing them in the halls: grabbing them, brushing up against them, asking for sex, making obscene gestures. Where had I been? The bell rang before I made a dent in the chaos. I tried not to panic. I could hear the phone calls from irate parents already. Worse yet, we had a problem, and I had to tell the principal.

Getting Help

It is normal for adolescent boys to experiment with their roles and occasionally mistake brutishness for masculinity. But had this gone too far? Or were the girls crying wolf? I wanted to explore this topic in my classroom—make social studies an applied science—but things could get messy. I needed support. My principal, Marion Gaigal, reacted enthusiastically. “Go for it. Let me know how I can help,” she said. She suggested I contact our school social worker, Debbie Johnston.
Debbie had lots of ideas and experience with hot topics. She believed that the team approach worked best and that we needed a man involved, too. Our school psychologist, Ralph Schwabish, was eager to help, but cautioned us about parental concerns.
Ralph's words underlined my own qualms. Talking about sexual matters in the volatile junior high setting is risky. As a teacher with no job security, did I really want to do this? Wouldn't it be safer to leave the problem with the Guidance Department and the dean? Ultimately, my students' visceral involvement and my principal's backing kept me going. My department chair, Elliot Hymes, joined our team as a sounding board and curriculum advisor.

Seizing the Reins

Because Debbie and Ralph were only available on Mondays, it took time to put together a presentation. Although their timetable was confining, it turned out to be an asset. We had to slow down, and once we began our classroom sessions, we used the time between sessions to process our experiences and plan our next moves.
As we did our initial planning, I had the class consider the larger context of harassment. Harassment of any kind was wrong, and harassment was nothing new. The Puritans had been religiously harassed, abolitionists had been socially harassed, and new immigrants had been ethnically harassed. At present, we needed to address how men and women have been sexually harassed. By the time our team came into my classroom, the class had a sense of historical perspective.
In our first team session Debbie and Ralph started with a statement: “Sexual harassment is not an issue of sex, but of power. Sexual harassment is coerced, unethical, and unwanted intimacy. The Supreme Court ruled that remarks, gestures, and even graffiti can be considered forms of sexual harassment.”
They gave specific examples of sexual harassment, and the kids argued over them. Some insisted that rude sounds, whistling suggestively, jokes about sex, and brushing up against bodies might be harassment for adults, but they were just forms of flirting for kids. One girl mentioned that her father's boss said he would fire anyone who harassed a co-worker. Kids knew teachers could lose their jobs, too. Some of the boys started to sound threatened. Could kids go to jail for sexual harassment? Was this sexual harassment stuff really serious? How could girls be offended when guys were just being guys? Girls asked if guys thought being hit on was fun.
“Sexual harassment is a woman's problem,” one boy insisted. “If a girl starts to hit on a guy, he doesn't get upset—it makes his day!”
We corrected misconceptions as fast as we could. At this point, only examples including direct bodily contact were considered harassment by most of the boys. Touching bottoms was conceded as probable harassment, along with snapping bras, but who could get upset if a guy told a girl to stuff her bra with tissues? The boys didn't have a clue about how offensive comments could be. The girls let their anger and distress show. We spoke of how victims protect themselves through denial and feigned laughter. Point after point was made and debated. We all worked at improving our listening skills. The girls were no longer labeling every insult as sexual harassment. Even the most indignant boys softened a bit.
One girl made a stunning point: “Nobody has the right to make you feel awful.”
The next day in class I asked for written reactions to the presentation. What would you like added to the presentation, or changed? Did you want to say something, but did not? What did you want to say? Students insisted that some harassment was unintentional. Girls knew of other girls who had been pinned against their lockers and kissed. One girl mentioned another school where boys played sexual tag in the halls. Some boys still seemed unaware of their vulnerability. “You would never hear a guy saying that he feels `violated'.... Sexual harassment is a stupid topic altogether.” Over time these feedback sheets became our best indicator of student growth and development, and we tailored our lessons to these insights. I also found that our ethics and civil rights discussions carried over into our daily social studies curriculum.

On the Other Foot

The second team session focused on role playing: sexual harassment done female to male. Our goal was to open the eyes of the most recalcitrant males. We showed a girl using rumor as sexual blackmail. A girl's joke about a boy's puny physique and squeaky voice was devastating. Suddenly this was not “just a woman's problem.”
One boy protested, “Nobody would believe a guy if he claimed sexual harassment.” Girls reassured him that anyone can be harassed, and that is what most people don't understand.
Debbie offered private and group counseling sessions. She gave advice on responding to harassment. “When somebody calls you names, insults your body, pushes into your private space, you should tell that person to leave you alone, immediately. If they don't back off, tell the nearest adult. Don't stop complaining until something is done to give you a safe space to exist.”
The boys seemed confused. “But what if we just want to flirt? How will we know what we can and can't do?”
“Treat everyone with respect, then you can't go wrong.”
“I give up,” another boy groaned. “Does this mean we're going to have to start courting again?” Everyone laughed, but everyone got the message, too.

The Moment of Truth

I ran the following week's session on my own. The students worked in small groups to design a sexual harassment policy for our school. The groups were to chart their recommendations and choose a speaker to represent them.
It took two class days for the students to hassle out their recommendations. One or two boys seemed to simply surrender, but most of the students argued a great deal. They discovered that codification of a policy was not a simple process; lawmaking must be even more complex.
In the meantime, I invited our principal, our dean of students, our superintendent, and our assistant superintendent to join our team for the next session, when the students would present their lists of “crimes and punishments” to each other. Anxious to come, the administrators rearranged their schedules to fit our class time. My students were amazed to learn that the bosses of the school wanted to hear their thoughts on school policy.
Monday came again. In spite of earlier discussions, some of the boys let slip their surprise when the superintendent and the assistant superintendent both turned out to be women. Seeing our dean of students sitting there and taking notes was more than some students could bear. But the business at hand overcame nervousness, and the charts gave support to weakened student knees.
As the students spoke individually in front of the classroom, the transformation from the first day was remarkable. Their definition of harassment now included jokes, gestures, and taunting, along with the more obvious physical violations. (They kept whistling in the realm of flirtation.) The students spoke of the need to show compassion and support in cases of sexual harassment. Education could prevent most problems. They urged warnings, written apologies, phone calls home, conversations with guidance, lectures from the dean, and detention for most types of harassment. In-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions were appropriate for acts of violence or repeated harassment.
A question and answer session followed the student presentations. Our principal asked the students what the school should do next. The problem is that everybody who is being sexually harassed is not speaking up.Some people sexually harass others, not knowing what they have done. Some cases are accidents.The bottom line is: sexual harassment is wrong, and kids need to know. We need assemblies or classes on this.
The session was still in progress when the bell rang. Students lingered to speak privately with one or another of the adult guests. The adults sought out particular students for clarification of points they had made earlier.

The Education Continues

In what I thought would be our final task, I asked the students to write about the presentation experience as if they were one of the adults present. What had they observed? What should happen next? Students who had been practically mute in my standard social studies activities wrote revealing statements: [As teacher] I feel that my students now enjoy learning and talking with their groups. They show more interest in social studies.[As superintendent] What this class has done was probably helpful to them, but they are a small minority of students in a large district.... The rest of the students, from 7th grade up, deserve it, too.[As superintendent] I don't know what it's like to be in junior high school in the ‘90s.... I'd like a new student government [that] will have the task of judging whether or not a student committed sexual harassment.... They will decide how the student should be punished.[As superintendent] I hope the principal talks about this with the other staff members and explains that if they see anything that seems serious or disturbing that they should report it.... In the end I would hope that the school is fully educated on the subject and that everyone tries to stay clear from it.
The solution to a potentially explosive problem turned out to be a validation of current educational philosophy: interdisciplinary team teaching, cooperative learning, student empowerment, shared decision-making. The whole experience culminated in a moment in which teachers, administrators, and students were all learning from one another, all striving to make the school a better place. And, throughout the entire time, not one phone call had come in objecting to the sensitive discussions or the time “lost” from the standard curriculum. My students wanted our sessions to continue, even if it meant meeting after school. They wanted to open the discussions up on a schoolwide basis.
Later I learned that other voices in other schools had also called for help. Our assistant superintendent established a task group to create a districtwide sexual harassment policy. I was able to invite my students to work as equals with teachers, staff, administrators, parents, and community members from all areas of the district to create our official school policy. The education continues for all of us.

Nan M. Higginson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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