Sexual Harassment and the Next Generation: How to Talk with Young People

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Steve Isaacs | Twitter

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November 27, 2017

Our country is engaged in a public conversation about sexual harassment and assault. Since the Harvey Weinstein allegations came to light, there is a long and growing list of 33 high-profile men who have been accused of sexual harassment. As we watch the cascade of accusations, admissions and denials, we have to ask ourselves if we are capable of making a difference with the next generation.

How can we address sexual harassment and assault with children and teens so that complacency and acceptance for this abhorrent behavior are not commonplace? How can we encourage young people to challenge gender norms so that all people can be who they want to be? How can we build a culture of respect, dignity and equity for girls and women?

The topic of sexual harassment is a difficult and uncomfortable one for schools to tackle and most educators are reticent to bring it up. Teachers who are accustomed to talking about current events—even the most controversial ones--are hesitant to raise this topic because they fear it is too emotionally challenging and triggering and should be left to other professionals (i.e. counselors and social workers). They worry that once they open the door to discussions of sexual harassment, topics like sexual violence, consent, sexual abuse and even rape could emerge and the teacher won’t feel equipped to handle it. Indeed, those issues need to be handled with great care by expert professionals with psychological training. See these guidelines on supporting students who experience trauma from the National Association of School Psychologists.

However, educators should engage in classroom conversations on these topics because they are relevant and important news topics and young people are exposed to them through their social media feeds and each other. They want and need to be part of this public conversation.

Further, schools should also address these issues because sexual harassment happens in schools and it is pervasive. Sexual harassment can happen to girls and boys; fellow students, teachers, principals, custodians, coaches and other school officials may be responsible. Forty-eight percent of 7-12 grade students report being sexually harassed and they experience this harassment both in person and electronically. And yet, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that 79% of all public schools reported zero incidents of sexual harassment. These two findings, taken together, suggest substantial underreporting.

Here are some ways that educators can address sexual harassment in their classrooms and school communities. Before delving in with students, teachers may want to reflect on their own feelings and experiences related to sexual harassment and assault. It is a difficult topic for which people need to emotionally prepare. Also, it’s important to accept that the topic isn’t easy to discuss and no one has all the answers.

  • Starting at a young age, talk with children about and deconstruct gender norms and gender roles. This can be done in the early years by talking about toys and gender or by reading children's literature that exposes and challenges gender norms. As students move into middle and high school, discuss how these norms manifest in media images and portrayals of both men and women. Examine how sexism informs ideas about masculinity and explore its impact on boys and men.
  • Talk with students about sexual harassment as a current event and news topic. Encourage them to learn more about the topic by asking questions, sharing what they already know, conducting research and digging deeper. If you are concerned that the conversation could bring up personal and/or difficult issues with students, have a school counselor in the room or seek their advice in advance. Also, remind students that they should share only what they want to and set up classroom guidelines to promote a safe learning environment.
  • Schools should have district anti-bullying and harassment policies (GLSEN provides a model) in place that provide information about staff responsibilities, student responsibilities, complaint/reporting procedures, discipline and counseling, professional development and prevention. Make sure these policies are updated regularly and that all members of the school community are aware of and understand the policies and their part in the process. Make an extra effort with students to define sexual harassment and clarify how students should report it.
  • Because sexual misconduct and harassment between students typically take place when adults are not around, it is important to help students learn how to act as allies and support other students when they see something or experience it themselves. Recent news stories about sexual harassment suggest that if people who knew about these incidents had not acted as bystanders but instead used ally behavior—from supporting the target to saying something in the moment to telling a trusted adult—the outcomes may have been different.
  • Educators can be mindful about making themselves more approachable so that students will feel comfortable talking to them when they witness or experience sexual harassment, either between students or by school staff. Similar to advice we give about bullying, administrators and educators should take the issue seriously, let students know they are always available to talk, take time to listen, do not embarrass students, be discreet and maintain confidentiality where possible.

Issues facing our society are often mirrored in our schools, as is the case with sexual harassment. Students are experiencing the devastating effects of sexual harassment and more often than not, not reporting it to adults. While it is a difficult subject to broach for young people and adults alike, we think some of the strategies presented here should help reduce the discomfort and provide a safe and learning environment for all.