As stories of sexual harassment and assault dominate the news—with recent allegations leveled against journalists and politicians—let’s remember this problem is not unique to Hollywood. It transcends political ideology, industry, geography, and—shockingly enough—age. Harassment is not something that surfaces only when women enter the workforce. It can start much, much earlier.
Research by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that nearly half of students surveyed in grades 7–12 experienced some form of sexual harassment within the past school year—nearly 87% of those students reported that the harassment had a negative impact on them. Verbal harassment made up the bulk of incidents but physical harassment was far too common. Thirty percent of students also reported sexual harassment by text, email, social media, or other electronic means.
That’s what we’re hearing from students, but it is not the story we’re hearing from schools. AAUW recently analyzed data from the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) to further examine differences in the rates of reported sexual harassment in our nation’s public schools. We found that 79% of all public schools reported zero incidents of sexual harassment in 2013–14. So what does this mean? It means that 79% of schools have zero students coming forward to report cases of sexual harassment.
That’s not what our research indicates nor is it what we’ve heard from faculty, parents, advocates, and students. Zeros are red flags suggesting that these schools haven’t taken the steps necessary to educate their school communities about what to do when sexual harassment occurs, and that the procedures they have in place to respond to such complaints are inadequate. Zeros don’t tell the full story of what’s happening to one of our most vulnerable populations in public schools across the country, but they do tell us that schools need to do a better job of monitoring and preventing harassment.
One way to do so is by fully enforcing Title IX, which mandates that, at a minimum, schools have harassment or bullying policies and Title IX coordinators in place. Only with the full enforcement of Title IX will schools begin to provide full transparency so that students can receive equitable access to education. These findings show that schools are vastly underestimating the frequency of sexual harassment and bullying, and by failing to report these incidents they are harming students, especially girls and LGBTQ children. Schools that have Title IX coordinators and bullying and harassment policies are providing students with the resources and support they need to come forward, increasing the likelihood of reporting at higher rates. But even with said policies in place, schools must be vigilant in monitoring and reporting unacceptable behaviors.
Schools not recognizing or addressing the problem draw a direct line to how we’re seeing employers handle, or fail to handle, their own sexual harassment cases. If left unchecked, harassment is a learned behavior that continues into adulthood. When our students attend a school where harassment occurs and isn’t addressed, this establishes a norm: It is in fact acceptable behavior and harassers will not be held accountable. That is reflected in the climate we see on college campuses and in workplaces—public, private, and nonprofit—across the country.
Harassment in schools is an uncomfortable subject, but it is one we must tackle unrelentingly. It’s critical for all of us—parents, administrators, students, leaders, advocates, and community members—to confront inappropriate behavior and biases head-on and to make clear that they will not be tolerated. Our children’s safety is on the line.
Kimberly Churches is the chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women.