Reducing sexual harassment in middle school

“Sexual harassment is appallingly common in middle school, and unfortunately the incomplete education students receive on the topic facilitates this horrendous behavior. In order to comprehensively end sexual harassment among students and abide by Title IX’s sexual harassment standards, [the school district] should update the health curriculum to ensure sexual harassment is properly addressed beginning in sixth grade,” writes Carmen Molina in The Black and White, the student newspaper at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Carmen calls on Montgomery County Public Schools, and by extension other school districts, to know that 43 percent of middle schoolers have been the target of verbal sexual harassment and 21 percent have been the target of physical sexual harassment at school, according to a recent five-year study of 1,300 middle schoolers by the University of Illinois. That study was published in the journal Children and Youth Services Review and reported by Voxitatis in December.

The study’s lead author, Dorothy L Espelage, has also been featured in other Voxitatis releases about bullying and the pain from bullying that can last for years. But the Walt Whitman op-ed adds a study from the University of Southern Maine to the debate:

Though student perpetrators often don’t recognize their actions to be malicious, harassment profoundly affects the victim, regardless of intent. Victims of sexual harassment are more likely than other students to experience depression, loss of appetite, sleep disturbances or nightmares, low self-esteem and feelings of sadness, fear or shame. Sexual harassment can also affect the victim’s school performance, leading to increased absenteeism, poorer grades, and decreased quality of schoolwork, according to a University of Southern Maine study.

Authors James Gruber and Susan Fineran write: “Our analyses suggest that girls continue to experience sexual harassment and bullying after middle school as a result of dominance and control strategies used by adolescents, in particular, boys. The fact that health outcomes are less impacted in high school by these behaviors may well be the result of better support systems and coping mechanisms among high school girls and more developmental changes among middle school girls.”

That is, middle school girls, going through puberty, which is tough to begin with, suffer worse as a result of sexual harassment than high school girls, who have better support structures in place. That’s why we, again, have to support calls like the one here for better education in middle school health curricula.

Beyond the schools, though, we also call on community members and especially the parents of middle schoolers to empower themselves when it comes to fighting sexual harassment of their children. An eBook released last month could help, the Huffington Post reports.

One of several take-home lessons from Support and Empower Your Bullied Child: A Guide For Parents is that “bullying is a little like the weather,” writes Larry Magid in reviewing Nancy Willard’s 46-page eBook. “Everyone complains but no one does anything about it. Well, that’s not entirely true. Some adults try to stop or prevent bullying but, too often, they wind up failing or making things worse.”

In particular, schools often dismiss sexual harassment with comments like, “They were just joking” or “Your child is overreacting.” This “blame the victim” approach solves nothing, Ms Willard suggests, and she should know: Her work in the area of bullying has provided important guidance to caring adults, going on a few decades now, so they can better empower young people to embrace civility and foster positive relations.

Healthy relationships are the key, of course, and bullying has often been linked to sexual harassment. Boys at Pasco Middle School in Dade City, Florida, wore pink one day last November, the Tampa Bay Times reports, to fight sexual harassment in the middle school.

Students there started the year with extensive training from the school about issues like bullying, sexual harassment, prejudice, and stereotypes. The purpose of the “Pink Out Day” was to symbolize students’ awareness of and willingness to stand up to bullying.

“When you think about it, even the wearing of pink for boys breaks stereotypes,” one teacher was quoted as saying. “In this group, we encourage the teaching of tolerance, and we teach them about stereotypes regarding gender and race. We also teach them about what healthy relationships look like.”

This kind of program needs to happen at more middle schools, including ones in Montgomery County, Maryland, and we are grateful to The Black and White for covering this important issue for the younger brothers and sisters of students at Walt Whitman.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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