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Warning: The content of this post might trigger unpleasant memories for anyone who has experienced sexual assault.

Last summer in Steubenville, Ohio, two 16-year-old high school football players allegedly raped a teenage girl at a party. The two young men have been charged, and the case made national headlines after the New York Times published a detailed article in December about what happened and after the activist hacker group Anonymous posted a video of teenagers making jokes about the alleged rape.

There have been many passionate, important articles and opinion pieces written in response to this horrific incident. Over the weekend, more than 800 people held a peaceful protest calling for justice for the survivor.

What I want to add — since the alleged assailants, the bystanders, the survivor, and the young men cracking jokes about rape were all high school students — is that this should be a wake-up call to school officials and communities to address sexual harassment and sexual assault in their schools!

Crossing the Line coverIn 2011, I co-authored Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, AAUW’s national study of students in grades 7–12 that showed that sexual harassment is still a widespread problem. Nearly 60 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys said they had experienced sexual harassment during the previous year. One-third of girls and one-fourth of boys said they had witnessed sexual harassment.

Physical harassment was not uncommon either. During the school year studied, 4 percent of girls and 0.2 percent of boys reported having been forced to do something sexual, and 13 percent of girls and 3 percent of boys had been touched in an unwelcome sexual way.

Many students saw these experiences as “no big deal,” and sexual harassment was understood as “part of school life.” Only 9 percent of the harassed students felt comfortable reporting their experiences to anyone at school.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that many of the students who harass and assault at school also do so outside of school, including at parties like the one the alleged Steubenville rapists attended, because sexual abuse is normalized in our society and perpetrators rarely see anyone punished for their actions.

It’s also not a stretch to say that schools should do more to address sexual harassment.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, schools must inform students that sex discrimination — including sexual harassment — is prohibited, publicize a grievance policy, and have a trained Title IX coordinator available so students can easily report incidents.

After AAUW’s 2011 report was released, I gave numerous talks across the country. Many AAUW branches that invited me to speak tried to set up meetings with Title IX coordinators. But in location after location, they could not find a single Title IX coordinator, even in large cities with many school districts. In speaking with people who regularly work on Title IX issues, I learned that this scarcity is pretty common.

I spoke at several bullying conferences and events. I received mostly blank stares when I asked people — including teachers and school administrators — if they knew what Title IX was or if they knew the names of their Title IX coordinators. At each of these conferences, I was the only person who talked about sexual harassment.

It was worse when I worked with AAUW’s Campus Action Project (CAP) teams. Each year, AAUW grants up to $5,000 to fund grassroots projects that use the recommendations from AAUW’s latest research report. In 2011–12, seven CAP teams focused on the Crossing the Line recommendations. I was appalled when most of the teams faced roadblocks as they tried to carry out their very noncontroversial projects. The following is just one example.

When one team asked to have access to a few high school students to conduct a focus group and then work with them to create an informational poster campaign, the school at first agreed. Then, when it came time to set up the focus groups, the school cancelled, saying in an e-mail that the focus group was too “controversial in nature” and that the discussion of the students’ experiences might obligate the school to report or investigate the incident “as required by law.”

When school administrators have this kind of attitude and it is combined with a culture that trivializes sexual harassment and assault, is it any wonder that sexual harassment and assault are rampant in most schools? Is it any surprise that perpetrators at school may very well become perpetrators outside of school?

It is time for school administrators, teachers, parents, and community members to finally acknowledge that sexual harassment and sexual assault happen in our schools. It’s time to talk to students about it, follow Title IX guidance, and make preventing harassment and assault a priority!

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Sometimes, we in the AAUW Public Policy Department are asked by members, “Does the work we do really make a difference?” When I answer with an unequivocal yes, I point to victories like the one we had last week.

For several years, AAUW members and coalition allies have shown tremendous support for the Student Nondiscrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA), both of which would require educators to address bullying and harassment in schools.

AAUW members reasserted their commitment to lobbying for safer school climates when they passed our 2011–13 legislative agenda to “advocate [for] equitable climates free of harassment and bullying.” In addition, AAUW members sent more than 10,000 e-mails to their elected representatives, and the AAUW Action Fund Lobby Corps has met personally with members of Congress and their staffs on these bills. AAUW’s public policy team directly lobbied Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to include SNDA and SSIA provisions in federal regulations. Just last month, AAUW joined 70 organizations in writing a letter requesting that President Obama publicly support and endorse SNDA.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks during a panel discussion at the
White House screening of Bully.

On Friday, April 20, the president officially endorsed both bills. This important step does not guarantee passage of the legislation, but it is a very good sign. I believe that the president’s action is another example of how AAUW’s activism — through lobbying, coalition work, research, and advocacy — continues to make a difference here in Washington, D.C.

The president’s announcement came during a White House screening of the documentary film Bully. AAUW was honored to be chosen as one of several groups invited to the event and to meet with several of the children and families highlighted in the film. Now playing in theaters nationwide, you — or better yet, you and your school-age children — can see Bully for yourselves.

As AAUW’s research Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School and other reports have established, sexual harassment and bullying are pervasive, national problems. SNDA and SSIA would require educators to address bullying and harassment in schools. It is wrong for Congress to let these bills languish. Take actioncontact Congress, and urge them to pass these laws.

Remember, we can make a difference by acting to end school bullying.

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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights made headlines earlier this month when it released new data showing that black and Hispanic students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the Civil Rights Data Collection findings are a wake-up call to educators at every level, and he issued a broad challenge to work together to address educational inequities.

AAUW agrees. We’ve done our own analysis of the data, which also shows troubling trends along gender lines — most notably that 14 of the 20 largest school districts in the country reported zeros across the board for the following categories: allegations of sexual harassment, disciplinary actions as a result of bullying or harassment on the basis of sex, and students who reported being bullied or harassed on the basis of sex. Those numbers fly in the face of the harassment and bullying that our research shows is actually going on in schools.

AAUW encourages everyone to take a close look at the Civil Rights Data Collection data and at our analysis below. As  AAUW Director of Public Policy and Government Relations Lisa Maatz said, “The groundbreaking, easily accessible data shows clearly that the administration feels sunlight is the best disinfectant. Now, every parent, teacher, school administrator, or interested citizen can find information on key civil rights indicators in their school districts.

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Did you happen to catch Lady Gaga on Oprah’s Next Chapter on Sunday night? If you watched or listened to the TV news shows or radio accounts of the interview the next morning like I did, you may hear about Lady Gaga’s relatively conservative dress, her vow of silence (for interviews) for the near future, and her desire to have a “soccer team” of kids.

I heard a different interview. I heard her describe her personal experience of being thrown in a garbage can while in school, a “joke” that continues to haunt her even today after all the “fame and glory.” I heard her describe why she started the Born This Way Foundation, which she co-leads with her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, to “foster a more accepting society where differences are embraced and individuality is celebrated.”

I heard three young people who used Lady Gaga’s lyrics from the song “Born this Way” to empower themselves and others against bullies. One of them, Ruthanne Johnson, even started her own foundation, BeYou YouthEmpowerment.

I heard a young woman who is making history — not just with record sales or one-of-a-kind artistic fashion statements but with a compassion that is changing the lives, and therefore the histories, of the next generation. She is empowering individuals to be brave, to gain self-confidence, and to take a stand when a stand needs to be taken.

As we honor Women’s History Month, I’d like to add to the list of great women who have changed history. So here’s to you, Lady Gaga, and to the many other women alive today who are using their own power for good — to help their families, their communities, their countries, and ultimately the world. You are creating a history that we will all be proud to look back on someday.

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Girl Scouts are celebrating their centennial year in part by declaring 2012 the year of the girl. Their presence in our neighborhoods, and especially outside shopping venues, is always strong during cookie season.  This year, the organization is even more visible in the news  marking this important milestone for an organization that has influenced young girls since 1912.  In 100 years, the organization has shaped the lives of young women, from my generation of millennials to generations before and after me. Looking back at my years with the Girl Scouts, I realized that it is a time period I did not fully appreciate until now. As a young woman, I see how those badges and camping excursions empowered me as a girl. The pride I felt when marching in the Veteran’s Day parade or making bologna sandwiches for the homeless will be remembered my whole life. There is no cliché in saying I acquired valuable skills, from making a campfire to learning sign language, as a Girl Scout.

This is a time for us to celebrate this organization rather than complain about the cost of those delicious cookies or the amount of calories each cookie contains. We should remember the power and influence this organization has had over more than 3.2 million girls and women.

AAUW’s Community Action Grants have funded several Girl Scout projects, implementing programs from robotics to civic engagement. Here is a brief look at how AAUW’s support of the organization impacts young women:

Robots and More, a program organized by the Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles (GSGLA), are helping to increase young girls’ excitement about STEM through participation in the Junior First LEGO League Robotics. 2011-13 Community Action Grant Recipients developed the program open to Juniors and Cadettes, who are in middle and high school. Girls are given exposure to the robotics, allowing them to design, build and program a robot that accomplishes specific missions related to a real-life problem.

Another 2011-13 Community Action Grant Recipient, Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains are advancing the political and advocacy awareness of young women. Girls Rock the Capitol is a national legislative program, recently expanded to New Hampshire. The program provides teens a mentor in the New Hampshire Congress, enabling them to learn about public policy, advocacy, political service, and civic engagement.

Powered Up! Anti-Bullying Program, from Girl Scouts of Eastern Oklahoma received their grant in 2010. Powered Up! focuses on the empowerment of bystander rather than focusing on bullying. Girls are tough though learning scenarios including how to identify bullying. In this training, the girls engage in activities that help foster a culture of kindness and respect.  Since the program’s development in Oklahoma in 2008, they have seen wide success, training over one thousand girls.

These Community Action Grant recipients are providing more options to young girls, just as their founder Juliette Gordon Low set out to do in 1912. The Girl Scouts organization has  who wear those recognizable uniforms and with their three fingers held high promise:

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.”

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Elyssa Shildneck.

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Imagine a 12-year-old girl in middle school. She doesn’t dress in a girly way, she has a low voice, and she likes playing video games. Other students think she’s not acting the way girls should act, so they trip her and call her “guy,” “fag,” and “transvestite.” The principal knows, but the abusers go unpunished, and she is told not to let the comments bother her. Because she and her parents feel that the school is no longer safe, she changes schools.

At the new school, the other students call her “guy” and “manly,” and one student tells her that she should “go kill herself.” She’s tripped, pushed into lockers multiple times, and pushed into a trash can. She’s sent to counseling once a week for “self-esteem problems,” but the abuse continues because the counselor never confronts the abusers. As a result of the harassment, her grades decline, her self-esteem plummets, and she’s hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.

That is exactly what happened to one of the six plaintiffs in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, the largest in Minnesota. In 2009, the school board adopted a policy instructing teachers to “remain neutral” about sexual orientation, but this effectively operated as a gag order and allowed bullying to occur without challenge. Six students filed a civil rights lawsuit against the school district claiming that there was an “epidemic of anti-gay and gender-based harassment within district schools” that was “rooted in and encouraged by official district-wide policies singling out and denigrating [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people.” This harassment had tragic consequences — eight students from the district committed suicide between 2009 and 2011.

The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education investigated the students’ claims and found that sex-based harassment in the district created a “hostile environment.” Last week, the departments, the school district, and the students reached agreement on a comprehensive consent decree that establishes a framework to protect the district’s children from sexual harassment and bullying. AAUW applauds this settlement and hopes that the framework it establishes will serve as a model for all schools dealing with sexual harassment. As AAUW’s research report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School and other reports have established, sexual harassment is a pervasive national problem.

For almost 40 years, Title IX has promised gender equity in education, including protection for students — male and female — from sexual harassment. And yet, the school district’s Title IX coordinator did not monitor or enforce Title IX issues outside the scope of athletics! The Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act, two legislative proposals languishing in Congress, would require educators to address bullying and harassment in schools. Take actioncontact Congress and urge them to pass these laws.

One resource to help students and parents is the AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund. LAF has worked for decades to combat sex discrimination. LAF’s initiatives include community and campus outreach programs, a resource library and online advocacy tools, a Legal Resource Referral Network, and various research reports. LAF also offers the Title IX Compliance: Know the Score Program in a Box, which provides resources and detailed plans to help members investigate whether schools in their communities are in compliance with the law.

As we move toward Title IX’s 40th birthday later this year, AAUW will keep strongly supporting the law and fighting to protect the equal treatment of all students. No student should go to school afraid.

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There has been overwhelming interest in AAUW’s most recent research report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. This attention does not surprise Susan Walker Woolley, a 2010–11 American Fellow whose dissertation corroborates the report’s findings.

Woolley conducted three years of ethnographic research at a large public high school in the San Francisco Bay Area. She followed peer-education outreach efforts aimed at fighting homophobia and transphobia that were organized by students in the school’s gay-straight alliance club. Students addressed gaps in the academic curricula and the policies aimed at protecting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. Woolley investigated the school’s formal sex, gender, and sexuality curricula that are taught in three freshman social studies courses and analyzed the ways students and teachers constructed and challenged safe spaces for dealing with differences. She focused on how these safe environments were negotiated among students and teachers within the curricula, social interactions, and teacher instruction and intervention as well as through students’ joking and teasing.

Woolley witnessed daily sexual and gender harassment, even at a school that already had policies and training in place. She says that there seems to be “something insidious, something so pervasive as to be unnoticed that perpetuates this kind of abuse. … I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is at the heart of what I am trying to understand in my research.”

In her study, Woolley found that students saw harassment as an ordinary part of school life. Students claimed that their high school was the best place to be LGBTQ and that it was a supportive school environment. However, in three years Woolley collected narratives about abuse, harassment, and everyday violence and found a huge disconnect between these encounters and the view of “normal” student life, exposing a cultural problem inherent in school and society. Woolley says that these social practices are so embedded in the daily lives of students that they perpetuate violence and ostracism.

Since her fellowship year, Woolley has been revising her dissertation. She presented her research to a number of scholars at international conferences, including events hosted by the American Anthropological Associationand the International Association for the Study of Sexuality, Culture, and Society. This spring, she will present at the American Educational Research Association’s annual meeting.

Woolley, who is about to graduate, says that she feels fortunate for her connection to AAUW, which helped her “get in touch with a network of professionals and scholars concerned about school safety for all students, education of girls and queer youth, and issues of equality and equity.”

This post was written by AAUW Fellowships and Grants Intern Elyssa Shildneck.

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