Skip to content
ascd logo

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

What to Do To Stop Sexual Harassment at School

Schools must stop ignoring “adolescent behavior” and do their part to eradicate unacceptable talk and actions.

Sexual harassment has been taking place in the schools for years, but only recently has it begun to get the attention it deserves. Some have called such attention an overreaction to normal adolescent behavior, but sexual harassment can inflict deep psychological damage on young people. Two recent incidents have made it clear to me that as educators we must do something to stop it.
A few weeks ago, I was patrolling the cafeteria when Jane, a 7th grader, approached me. “Joey's bothering me; tell him to stop it,” she complained. I was about to tell her to ignore it, when my mouth formed the words “What's the problem?” Only with great reluctance, she told me that Joey was spreading a story that she had been to the hospital to get a hot dog removed from her vagina (not the word the boy used).
Joey had not been alone in harassing the young lady. After I talked with the boys involved and notified their parents, the boys delivered a letter of apology to Jane. Jane told them how upset she was to have such a story told about her. Although the boys were not being intentionally hateful, they were ignorant of how their actions were affecting her. They needed to be taught how to decide what comments were appropriate. The harassment occurred partly because they were adolescents and not aware of the rules that govern sexual interactions.
In another recent incident, several boys and girls began calling another girl “ho” (whore), “slut,” and “bitch” and started spreading the rumor that she had AIDS. Although the children have now stopped their taunts, she has not forgotten the pain.
A study by the American Association of University Women indicates that 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys in grades 8–11 have experienced some form of sexual harassment. In fact, 65 percent of girls and 42 percent of boys have actually been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way in school (AAUW 1993).
That school systems have a responsibility to ensure that each student can attend school in a safe environment has been made clear by recent court decisions. The Supreme Court reinforced this responsibility when it ruled in February 1992 that students could sue and collect damages for harassment under Title IX of the Education Act of 1972. Students are making use of that right. For example, an 8th grade student in Petaluma, California, filed a lawsuit against her school district for failing to end harassment by her classmates. The suit was settled for $20,000 (Adler 1992).

Guidelines for Administrators

  1. Make the elimination of sexual harassment a top priority. Empower teachers to take a stand against inappropriate name-calling and sexual comments. Talk about the problem, hold inservices, and bring in guest speakers to show the entire staff that this issue is important and that harassment is not acceptable adolescent behavior. Elicit staff participation in developing and implementing a plan to educate themselves, the students, and the parents about sexual harassment.
  2. Educate students about sexual harassment. Students must be taught the difference between friendly teasing and bullying, between flirting and harassment. Behavior expectations must be clearly defined and explained; fair and consistent consequences need to be outlined and reinforced.
  3. Get parents involved. Parental involvement is critical to long-term behavior modification. In many cases, parents will need to be educated about sexual harassment and its harmful effects in order to help them identify harassment and respond appropriately. When harassment occurs, parents of victims and perpetrators need to be informed of the details so that the emotional and developmental needs of both parties can be addressed. Family involvement and possibly outside counseling may be needed to avoid long-term emotional damage and to modify inappropriate behavior.
  4. Teach students how to deal with harassment. Ignoring the situation can often lead to a cycle of ongoing harassment and victimization. A perpetrator gets an emotional payoff from seeing others afraid and upset. Students must learn to be assertive and establish strong personal boundaries. They must tell their classmates to stop when their behavior is offensive and inappropriate. Bystanders, too, must speak out against harassment when it occurs. If students become moral spectators, there is little hope for change.
If harassment continues, students need to seek help from teachers, counselors, and administrators. Students are often embarrassed to report sexual harassment because of its degrading nature. They need to know that the harassment is not their fault, nor is it a reflection on them. They need to keep asking for help until the harassment stops; it may take two or three interventions before the behavior is modified. That students continue to seek help is in the best interests of all: unresolved conflicts can emotionally damage the victim, harden the consciousness of the perpetrator, and possibly lead to lawsuits for the school system.
Just as a lifeguard listens and looks for the signs of swimmers in danger, administrators must be on constant vigil to protect students from the needless suffering of sexual harassment. School personnel must never turn a deaf ear to students' seemingly trivial cries for help. Sexual harassment is not something young people need to learn to tolerate. Rather, it must be confronted and stopped so that schools can be safe and positive places for children to learn.

Adler, J., and D. Rosenberg. (October 19, 1992). “Must Boys Always Be Boys?” Newsweek, 77.

The American Association of University Women. (June 1993). “Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America's Schools.” Researched by Louis Harris and Associates.

Edward J. Mentell has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 61193175.jpg
Character Education
Go To Publication