Posts Tagged ‘Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School’

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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Research is in the DNA of AAUW. It’s a big piece of what we’ve based our reputation on, and it influences our programming agenda and public policy issues. Research provides a basis for the organization and a passion that unites our members across the country.

With every new report, we make a big splash. There’s usually a blitz of media coverage at first, and then it naturally trails off. But every once in a while, a year or more after publication, interest in the report is renewed. This happened recently for our 2011 report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School.

AAUW’s Director of Research Catherine Hill was featured on Teen Kids News in October 2012. This show is a half hour weekly news program reported by kids for kids. The episode with Catherine’s interview aired on at least 73 stations across the country. In addition, according to their website, “Teen Kids News is shown every week during the school year in over 12,000 middle and high schools across the country reaching over 6 million students. This is nearly 25 percent of America’s teens — and hundreds of thousands of educators.”

To help make research matter in your local area, AAUW encourages members to contact their local schools and see if this episode about sexual harassment has been shown to students. If not, the video you saw above can be accessed online and shared with schools. Other resources that can be helpful when discussing Crossing the Line include the full report, executive summary, and PowerPoint presentations for various audiences.

If you’re planning on using Crossing the Line or other research to reach out to your local schools, please let us know in the comments! We always like to hear about the amazing work our members and branches do with AAUW research.

AAUW Research Assistant Katie Benson also contributed to this post.

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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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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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For two years, I drew a comic strip that was a spoof of the superhero genre. The strip was called The Saga of Anti-Rape Man and was published on the Men Can Stop Rape website.

In the story, Henry Niemeyer, Anti-Rape Man’s secret — well, not entirely secret — identity,  accidentally stumbles into a wing of Sibley Memorial Hospital that is a clandestine feminist laboratory where experiments in creating female superpowers are conducted daily. A bizarre accident occurs — no one can explain how — that results in Henry developing superpowers to prevent rape. The tables are turned on Henry: Instead of being a hypermasculine superhero, his entry into the world of costumed powerhouses was overseen by women with special powers.

When I first conceived of the strip, I had doubts about whether I could pull it off. I worried that there would be too many minefields, too many possibilities that my attempts at humor would offend someone, especially women. I put a lot of thought into how Anti-Rape Man could be funny without offending, and before making them public, I ran the strips by people I trusted to tell me if I had crossed a line. In the two years that I wrote and drew Anti-Rape Man, there was only one negative response to one strip after I posted it on the website.

By writing about Anti-Rape Man, I intended to suggest that humor and responsibility should go together. In other words, we have to consider the effect our humor has on others. I know this goes against the grain. The general expectation is that if you’re the butt of a joke and can’t laugh it off, then you’re the problem. You’re lacking in the “ha-ha” quotient. You’re genetically deficient when it comes to funny genes. You’ve got no comical wherewithal. You’re kind of an uncool nerd. Everyone makes fun of you because you have no sense of humor.

AAUW’s latest study, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, offers insight into this conventional humor dynamic. Almost 2,000 students in grades 7–12 were surveyed, and from the results we learn that students typically don’t harass because they want to date someone (only 3 percent of students) or because they think the person likes it (just 6 percent of respondents). A lot of students — 39 percent of those surveyed — harass because they are trying to be funny. The study refers to them as “misguided comedians.” They may be misguided from our perspective, but from theirs, it seems likely that they know exactly what they want the outcome to be: shared laughter with everyone but the person who’s the butt of the joke. It’s a bonding thing. It’s a way for boys and young men to solidify their standing in a male group (according to the study, most harassers are male). That’s why it happens to someone who’s not part of this kind of group.

Consider the students who are most likely to be harassed:

  • Girls whose bodies are more developed
  • Girls who are very pretty
  • Boys who are not athletic or masculine
  • Girls who are not pretty or feminine
  • Girls or boys who are overweight

The group least likely to be harassed? Boys who are good-looking. Initially, I found this almost comical. I almost laughed about it.

Instead, I thought about my respect for lines. Cartoons are all about lines. Lines form shapes and words, which in turn become characters who speak in cartoon bubbles and say and do things that make us laugh. Sexual harassment is all about lines too. Those of us who work with young men need to discuss with them when humor crosses a line, when it turns into sexual harassment and becomes something harmful. We can help them recognize that it’s possible both to laugh and to respect lines.

This post was written by Men Can Stop Rape Director of Strategy and Planning Patrick McGann.

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My first internship was not very glamorous. At the volunteer-run Planned Parenthood Los Angeles, I did countless hours of data entry. My main job, which I spent about 60 hours doing, was entering volunteers’ information into a new computer program. Transferring the information from hundreds of paper documents to the online system was tedious, time-consuming, and boring. But surprisingly, it was important.

My experience as an intern was similar to that of many high school and college students who start out volunteering and interning at nonprofits and other organizations. Often they are stuck doing busy work — making copies, typing, and answering phones. It is easy to get frustrated by that work, but one of the best lessons I ever learned is that every job matters.

It is imperative to realize that even the most mundane tasks help an organization’s mission and propel it toward reaching its goals. Think of those small jobs as the building blocks of the foundation of the organization. Groups like AAUW could never lobby Congress, have programs like $tart $mart, or publish Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School without individuals fact checking, calling for donations, or holding local branch meetings. Changing the world is a collaborative mission, and every task plays an integral role in reaching that goal.

Always remember to focus on the bigger picture. Though typing for hours was difficult, in the end, having every volunteer’s information in the computer system made it easier to contact, organize, and mobilize them. This directly enabled more volunteers to go out and educate people about reproductive health issues.

So next time you are disappointed by the dull job you are assigned at your internship, remember that what you are doing is the first step toward enabling something amazing to happen.

This post was written by National Student Advisory Council member Samantha Abril.

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AAUW’s research report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School has certainly captured the attention of the media. The New York Times, CNN, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Ms. Magazine were just a few of the outlets that mentioned Crossing the Line and the dangerously normalized culture of sexual harassment in grades 7–12. AAUW is proud to be recognized by the media as a leader in the conversation on sexual harassment time and time again.


These are just a few of the stories that our research report inspired.

The Washington Post

Report: Sexual Harassment Common in Schools

Sexual Harassment in Schools: A “Big Deal”

Huffington Post

Sexual Harassment in Schools — Studies Say It’s Real

Despicable Behavior, But Is This Harassment?


It’s More than Pulled Pigtails

Daily Kos

I’ve Been Sexually Harassed


Sexual Harassment in Schools is Frighteningly Common


Herman Cain and Sexual Harassment: Some Men Still Just Don’t Get It


But our focus isn’t only on getting media hits. We want to see real and positive changes in the lives of children. Drawing attention to Crossing the Line also encourages dialogue about solutions, which is too often neglected. Recently, NPR interns noticed AAUW’s research and called sexual harassment a “missing conversation” in schools. They found that schools’ approaches to sexual harassment was more often reactive than protective or even remedying. This omission really does foster a culture of sexual hostility in which Title IX regulations are undermined, students don’t report harassment, and harassment is treated largely with ambivalence.

Let’s continue to make clear that sexual harassment is a dangerous reality that must be taken seriously. With our voices in the news, we can ensure that the dialogue goes from “missing” to engaged and influential. What are your best ideas for creating change in how the media and the public understand sexual harassment?

This post was written by AAUW Media Relations Intern Alexandria Braboy.


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AAUW’s research reports have the greatest impact when people read them and put our recommendations into practice. Our amazing network of AAUW members helps make this happen, and one way we see our recommendations implemented is through our Campus Action Project grant program. Each year, we fund teams of faculty and students so they can launch programs in their communities that focus on the topic of our most recent research report.

After managing this program for three years, I’m extra excited this year because I’m also a co-author of our newest report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, which is the research that will guide the 2011–12 CAP teams. I’m intimately familiar with the report recommendations, and I’m excited to see them brought to life by our seven teams this spring.

The newly selected teams will produce projects that include working with focus groups of students and developing workshops, materials, and documentaries to help educate students and communities about sexual harassment and how to prevent it.

In addition to funding the projects, AAUW will pay for one member of each team to speak at the 2012 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders. The conference, hosted by AAUW and NASPA, helps women students connect with each other and with successful role models while honing leadership skills for their work on campus and in their communities.
The AAUW Campus Action Project grant recipients for 2011–12 are

  • Dakota State University, South Dakota
  • Jefferson Community College, New York
  • Millersville University, Pennsylvania
  • Pacific Lutheran University, Washington
  • Saint Mary’s College, Indiana
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Kentucky


You will be able to read project updates on the AAUW website in March 2012.

In the meantime, I encourage you to help bring our Crossing the Line recommendations to light, too. Read through the research report, watch and share our public service announcement, and start a discussion about sexual harassment in schools with educators, parents, and students you know.

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Sexual harassment disproportionately affects girls. The AAUW report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School empowers girls to understand that there are institutional biases against them because they are girls and that these biases make them more susceptible to harassment and the detrimental effects that flow from those experiences. But one area where girls fare slightly better than boys is in their willingness to report harassment. Of those surveyed for Crossing the Line, only 12 percent of girls who experienced sexual harassment reported it. But boys who experienced sexual harassment at school were even less likely to report it — just 5 percent did so.

That finding weighs heavily on me as I continue to hear horrific stories coming from Penn State, where prosecutors say an 11-year-old boy was molested (a form of sexual harassment and violence that is covered under Title IX) and several others were also sexually assaulted. He and the other alleged victims were then shamed by Penn State students, alumni, celebrities, and even their own peers, all because they had the courage to speak up. Unfortunately, that boy — whom the grand jury calls Victim One and is now a teenager — felt he had no choice but to leave school because of the continued victimization — and yes, continued sexual harassment — by his peers in the aftermath of reporting sexual abuse by a popular football coach.

In an open letter to this boy, Tyler Perry, a renowned celebrity and role model for thousands of young people, wrote eloquently about the courage of this young victim, who was the first to come forward. Perry also shared his own tragic story of abuse, which was made even more tragic by his inability to find help from anyone.

“You may have to go through with that trial, and you may feel all alone when you’re on that witness stand, but just know that there are millions of young boys and grown men who are standing with you — including me,” Perry wrote. “If every man who has ever been molested would speak up, you would see that we’re all around you. You may not know all of our faces and names, but my prayer is that you feel our strength holding you up. You will get through this; you’ve already endured the worst part at age 11. Now fight on, my young friend, fight on! We are all with you.”

AAUW works hard to translate these stories into data that can be used to help protect children in the future. Earlier this month, I met with Senate staff members who are pushing forward with two pieces of legislation: the Safe Schools Improvement Act (S. 506/H.R. 1648) and the Student Nondiscrimination Act (S. 555/H.R. 998). I hope you will put your rage into action and make sure your senators are supporting these bills that might make it just a little bit easier for victims of sexual harassment at schools to get the help they need.

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