When I was in sixth grade, at twelve years old, I was sexually harassed. I’m not going to talk about who did it or what they did because of personal preference. It was unexpected, and was the first time something like that had happened to me. After school was over, I went to the main office to report it, having learned how via a mandatory workshop in my social smarts class. As soon I received a stack of papers from a helpful and sympathetic teacher, I filled out a detailed form about what had happened. I was a little shaken, but I felt reassured that something would be done. Later that week, I met with my grade’s vice principal, who detailed the ways I could settle it. She asked me my preferences on how to handle it, told me that my school took things like this seriously, and had me fill out another form. Later, my parents received a call from the school saying the kid had gotten suspended. I’m thirteen now, and for the first time I’ve done some research on my school’s policy, how it handled my case, and things other kids have gone through. Just now I am realizing how lucky I am, how lucky I was, and how unlucky some other kids are. I’ve also found a bill that, if passed, could make everyone as reassured as I was when I called my mom and told her what had happened, what actions I had taken, and how everything was going to be okay. I want the Safe Relationships Act of 2015 reintroduced and passed.
In my research, I discovered that sexual harassment policies can, and do, vary by state and district. This is because of the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Davis v. Monroe case. The Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment serious enough to affect a kid's grades or make said kid too afraid to enter certain places in the school denies that student their right to equal protection in school under Title IX. Also, they defined sexual harassment as something that is persistent, or something that happens more than once. So, for a school to be forced to do something, the harassment has to interfere with a kid’s learning, or make them afraid to go to school, and it has to happen on a daily basis. That’s like telling a jewelry seller that a thief stealing one diamond didn’t interfere with them selling any other diamonds, and it only happened once, so really, there’s nothing they can do. There is also no national law that forces schools to teach students what sexual harassment is, or how to report it. If my school had chose to not teach me anything, they could, with no legal ramifications. Also, some schools might want to discourage students from reporting harassment. It’s bad for a school’s image, the same as rape is bad for colleges, or maybe the attitude in the place where a kid lives doesn’t encourage them to even classify their case as sexual harassment. Those are all things that could’ve stopped me from speaking up. However, my school, and the state law it’s governed by, encourages victims to speak up.
So do people like Dorothy Espelage, a professor of education psychology at the University of Florida, and a bullying and youth violence expert. She recently held a five-year study that examined sexual harassment among about 1,300 schoolchildren in Illinois. She found that almost half (43 percent) of the kids she surveyed reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment. "What was most surprising and concerning was that these young people were dismissive of these experiences, even though they described them as very upsetting," Espelage said. “Students failed to recognize the seriousness of these behaviors -- in part because teachers and school officials failed to address them. Prevention programs need to address what is driving this dismissiveness." She’s absolutely right, and not just about Illinois. Larger studies have shown that around one-third of both male and female adolescent students have experienced some type of sexual harassment, and that they are still likely to dismiss them as “trivial” and “just joking”. This is partially because of lack of education about sexual harassment, and general blind-eye attitudes. Mostly, it’s because our current national laws allow negative attitudes and dismissal of preventative programs to fester without cease. California has a law saying that these programs need to happen in their schools, but other states don’t, because there’s no national law about this. In the current system, the only way a school can be forced to change its policy is if a parent takes a lawsuit against the school, and wins. That’s the only way, and of course, not all families have the time and/or resources to do that. Not all kids are willing to return to a school they just sued.
The Teach Safe Relationships Act of 2015 could fix nearly all of these problems. It was introduced by then-Senator Tim Kaine (in 2016, he would be chosen as Hillary Clinton’s running mate). To quote from the bill’s statement of purpose,
“It is the purpose of this subpart: (1) To help ensure that all students receive evidence-informed safe relationship behavior education and training, including education and training regarding the prevention...adolescent dating violence or relationship abuse...and sexual violence and harassment. (2) To promote safe and healthy relationships between and among students. (3) To help students and school faculty and staff to develop healthy and respectful attitudes and insights necessary for students to understand themselves in the context of relationships with others and with society. (4) To provide financial assistance to support local educational agencies in meeting the requirements of title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.”
This bill wants to make sure all students know what healthy relationships are, all schools promote healthy relationships, and wants the government to help fund programs that prevent sexual harassment. It also defines consent as an “affirmative, unambiguous, and voluntary agreement to engage in a specific sexual activity during a sexual encounter”, sexual harassment as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, including unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Notice it didn’t say sexual harassment had to happen more than once. It requires all schools in the United States to be held to this standard. Think about that for a minute.
Sexual harassment in middle school is a rather underrated issue, what with everyone worrying about rape on private college campuses and all of the beauty pageant dressing rooms Trump has walked into (not that those things aren’t awful, and numerous). This behavior starts small, though. Why are we waiting until college to start programs like these? We have to begin with middle schools. With one student calling another student a vulgar word in the hallway. We need to raise our standards, so that one day, no one will complain about unwanted sexual advances. That’s the day when everything will be over. Right now, everything is far from over. Please re-introduce the Teach Safe Relationships Act. Please pass it. We need this right now.
As I said at the beginning, I was lucky. But whether a kid can report being sexual harassed, or even know if they were harassed, should not depend on luck.