Home Page > Article > Study: Sexual Harassment Frequent Among Middle School Students

At least 1 in 4 middle school students say they’ve experienced unwanted verbal or physical sexual harassment on school grounds, often in the hallway or even in the classroom, according to new research published Sunday. Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed nearly 1,400 students from four Midwestern middle schools on whether they had experienced unwanted sexual harassment. Overall, 27 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys reported they had experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment or violence. The most commonly reported form of harassment was unwanted physical touching, which was reported by 21.6 percent of the students who said they had experienced harassment. Rumor-spreading, verbal sexual commentary and homophobic name-calling were the next most frequently reported at 18.9 percent, 18.2 percent and 17.9 percent, respectively.

One surprising finding to the researchers was where the incidents of harassment took place. The majority – 22.7 percent – took place in school hallways, closely followed by classrooms (21.4 percent), school gyms (13 percent) and near school lockers (9.7 percent). “Hallways made sense. Even the gym made sense,” says Dorothy Espelage, principal investigator of the study and a professor of educational psychology. “The classroom was very surprising to our team.” Espelage says although the number of students who reported unwanted sexual harassment is alarming and “very, very concerning,” it was also interesting to see that many students were dismissive of the incidents. “We didn’t ask them to talk about how normal sexual harassment was,” Espelage says. “We asked them the most upsetting event … and they would almost undo it as if [to say], ‘But that’s just joking.'” Overall, nearly 9 percent of the responses from students who said they had been sexually harassed included some form of “normalizing,” the study found. “It is a cause of concern that these youth are at such a young age dismissive of behaviors that are clearly distressing,” the study says.

Still, that dismissiveness is perhaps unsurprising, Espelage says, given what the researchers know about the same schools’ teacher and staff perspectives on sexual harassment. In a study published last June, Espelage and her colleagues found many school staff members did not understand what constitutes sexual harassment and couldn’t clearly distinguish it from bullying. It also found school staff members were unclear about their roles in “controlling student hypersexuality as opposed to intervening when they observed sexual harassment as the law requires.”
“We are not talking to kids about what sexual harassment is. We are not talking to kids about boundaries,” Espelage says. “So when these things happen, they don’t know what to call it. They may know they feel uncomfortable and they can tell us it was upsetting to them, but the adults around them aren’t necessarily talking to them about their rights.”

Espelage says in her previous study, some teachers’ attitudes toward sexual harassment also were somewhat dismissive – claiming students should expect it based on how they behave or dress – and that attitude could at least partially explain the prevalence of sexual harassment that takes place in the classroom. On the other hand, Espelage says people can forget that teachers often don’t see or hear everything that goes on in the classroom, which doesn’t always equate to being negligent or dismissive. According to a 1999 Supreme Court ruling, educators at any school receiving federal funding are required to stop students from sexually harassing each other or the school could lose that funding. In 2010, the Department of Education sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to school officials nationwide reminding them that it’s important to distinguish between bullying and different types of discriminatory harassment, including sexual harassment.

“As discussed in more detail below, by limiting its response to a specific application of its anti-bullying disciplinary policy, a school may fail to properly consider whether the student misconduct also results in discriminatory harassment,” the letter said. That’s why it is important for schools to make sure their teachers and staff are properly educated about sexual harassment and trained to address such incidents, Espelage says. “Schools need to go beyond just putting a sexual harassment policy in a handbook and having parents and students sign off on it,” she says. “It’s a shame the [Department of Education] has to threaten them in some ways. A school could have public funds pulled and be put under investigation. It’s a shame you have to pull that card.” Administrators should also be trained in how to handle the situations after they have occurred in regards to the victim and how to discipline the aggressor. Schools are falling short across the board. USNEWS By Allie Bidwell, Staff Writer | April 6, 2014, at 4:05 p.m.

Teach your children and educate yourself on the following definition: unwelcome words or conduct of a sexual nature that have the purpose or effect of creating an embarrassing, hostile, humiliating or offensive environment for the victim. Help stop this behavior or help report this behavior. If you are a victim of sexual harassment, it is up to you to take the first action. You could be saving not only yourself from harassment, but others as well.

Susie Bean Gives