Sexual Harassment In Our Schools
By Dana Razzano, Internet Reporter

Sexual harassment is no longer just a concern in the workplace. According to a report released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an alarming number of high school students are exposed to repeated sexual harassment while in school.

"The vast majority of students - 83 percent of girls and 79 percent of boys - have experienced some form of harassment," said Pamela Haag, Director of Research for the AAUW Education Foundation. This number indicates both physical and non-physical harassment, which includes sexual rumors, slanderous graffiti, gestures and being called names.

Though 96 percent of students indicated they know what constitutes harassment and 69 percent are aware that their school has a policy on sexual harassment, rates of harassment have remained stable since the AAUW first commissioned a study on the topic in 1993.

Conducted by Harris Interactive, the latest report surveyed over 2,000 public school students and uncovered that 58 percent of students were victims of physical harassment. Other new findings include over one-third of the victims of harassment being first exposed to the behavior as early as elementary school and 7 percent more male students reported being the victim of harassment, up to 56 percent of respondents.

A Cycle Of Harassment

If students are more knowledgeable about their school's policy on sexual harassment, why is harassment so prevalent? According to Haag, this question is the most difficult and most important to answer. "We are heartened to know that more [students] were aware of their school's sexual harassment policy, but it doesn't seem to have made a dent in the rate of harassment," she said. 

Harassment most often stems from the social pressures of wanting to fit in and belong, said Haag. Many students engage in such behavior to retaliate against being harassed themselves fostering a cycle of harassment, along with the notion that a culture of harassment exists in schools. Even though students are aware that harassment impacts them negatively, most believe that's just the way things are, she said. 

According to Haag, students didn't vilify the media or point out any one reason as to why sexual harassment is so prevalent. Rather, students believe that they are in an atmosphere that is permeated with this behavior in and outside of school.

Harassment also continues to exist because most students don't ever report incidents. Students were polled with abstract and concrete situations on how they would respond to being harassed. Haag said that in a hypothetical situation, 30 percent of students responded that they would and should tell an administrator or counselor about being harassed. Yet, when students were asked about how they personally responded to being harassed, very few have actually told an official or their parents about the behavior.

"Most students don't have a way to tell this information without it coming back to them as being a snitch or tattletale," said Haag. In theory students believe it's a good idea to report harassment, but it's a practice students don't follow, she said.

The Impact of Harassment

Female victims of sexual harassment also reported being more negatively affected by this behavior than male victims. The report indicates that girls are far more likely to feel self conscious, embarrassed and less confident due to harassment. Girls are also more likely to change their behavior in school and at home, by talking less in class and avoiding the perpetrator.

"There are so many entrenched reasons for [the way girls react]," said Haag. "There are different ideas about sexuality [for males and females], along with the pattern of shame being attached to the victim instead of the harasser."

Without an environment to foster conversations about harassing behavior, it is likely little will change. Students criticized their school's handling of sexual harassment discussions, most of which are handled in a perfunctory way, through watching a video or a reading handout, said Haag. Though it is meant with good intentions, it isn't changing the environment of how to handle or discuss sexual harassment in schools. 

The results of this report spurred the AAUW to partner with the National Education Association (NEA) to form a task force to address the problem of sexual harassment in schools. Education leaders from across the country on the task force will work to implement new curricula in schools regarding sexual harassment, re-evaluate current harassment policies and make schools a safer place.


For more information on the AAUW's report on sexual harassment, visit:

AAUW Educational Foundation Research
Department RR.INT
1111 Sixteenth Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20036
Phone: 800-326-AAUW
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339