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Sexual assault and harassment is in the spotlight in K-12 schools also

The #MeToo movement and the simmering debate about sexual assault and harassment has seeped down into K-12 schools, and some critics say that while federal regulations address the issue, school districts often struggle to understand their responsibility and establish a clear policy or fully enforce one.

The National Education Association at its recent annual convention tackled the issue and called for more attention to sexual assault and harassment, and the organization Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS) has stepped up pressure on officials at the federal, state and local level to increase awareness of the problems among school staff and students. Meanwhile, national media, including the Associated Press and Atlantic magazine, have put a spotlight on the  issue and incidents that have come to light.

Experts report about half of teens say they’ve been assaulted or harassed, but many other incidents may go unreported. Eighty-five percent of LGBT students say they have been attacked verbally or physically. (There is other data at  Title IX at 45: Ending Sexual Harassment and Assault and in AAUW Hostile Hallways stats.)

Esther Warkov, founder of SSAIS, says teachers should be aware that Title IX federal civil rights law established sexual violence as a form of discrimination, a stand the Obama administration reinforced in 2016 for k-12 schools after much attention to the issue in colleges.

SSAIS has promoted these definitions for school use, based on Title IX law.

  • Sexual assault: a sexual act committed or attempted without freely given consent of the victim, including acts such as forced or alcohol/drug facilitated penetration, unwelcomed sexual touching, or non-contact acts of a sexual nature such as verbal harassment
  • Sexual harassment: unsolicited sexual behavior, either verbal or physical, that hinders the victim from obtaining equal education such as unwelcome comments, touching, intimidation or force to do something sexual.

 “When sexual harassment or assault occurs, Title IX requires that schools take immediate, effective action to eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy the effects on the victim” according to the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education

Susan Moen, executive director of the Jackson County, OR, Sexual Assault Response Team, who works closely with a number of schools in the region, says that teachers should understand their obligation and take action if they witness such activity or it is reported to them. But she also says there are other ways that educators can help tackle the problem.

“Be an ask-able adult. Encourage kids to ask you about sexual assault and sexual harassment and talk to them about it, following guidelines from your administrator, she says. “Make it clear that students can approach you if they believe they have been attacked or know of others who have. We tell even littlest kids ‘don’t stop asking for help’”.  

She says teachers may also address the issue in lessons – following up on an issue in current events for older students or coordinating with health class for younger students and allowing them to discuss the issues in a different setting or connecting it to a story or book or social studies lesson.

Warkov says educators who feel strongly about the issue also may wish to try to influence others in their school or change district about policy.

“A teacher should think holistically about strategies for school culture change,” she says.
“They can champion sustainable interventions instead of one-time presentations or involve other teachers, students, and community organizations that focus on gender equity or sexual harassment.” She says the SSAIS Action Guide is an good resource for the school community. 

Moen played a key role in the Ashland (OR) School District developing what Warkov sees as a model policy after students protested about what they thought was a lax response to incidents.   

Warkov also notes that teachers played a key role in Seattle, where the district developed a broad plan to address the issue that she says also can serve as another model for schools. In Oakland, teachers advocated with their district to, among other things, designate a responsible staff member in each school to deal with the issue. Palo Alto teachers led and effort to address complaints about the district policy and now hold regular training on the issue.

Here are some resources for schools concerning the issues of sexual assault and harassment

Written by Jim Paterson

Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at