-Rick Nauert, PhD
Sexual harassment is a prevalent form of victimization that most antibullying programs ignore and teachers and school officials often fail to recognize, according to bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage, Ph.D.
The recent teen suicide of Brandy Vela, a teen in Texas City, Texas, is a case in point. According to Vela’s parents, the teen fatally shot herself following months of bullying and sexual harassment, perpetrated in part through text messages and social media.
Espelage recently led a five-year study that examined links between bullying and sexual harassment among schoolchildren in Illinois.
Nearly half — 43 percent — of middle school students surveyed for the study reported they had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment such as sexual comments, jokes, or gestures during the prior year.
Researchers followed 1,300 Illinois youths from middle school to high school, examining the risk factors associated with bullying and sexual harassment and the characteristics of the perpetrators.
Students from four middle schools completed the surveys, and some of the youths and their teachers also were interviewed by the researchers.
Investigators discovered that while verbal harassment was more common than physical sexual harassment or sexual assault, 21 percent of students reported having been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way, and 18 percent said peers had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner.
Students also reported being forced to kiss the perpetrators, having their private areas touched without consent and being “pantsed;” having their pants or shorts jerked down by someone else in public.
About 14 percent of the students in the study reported having been the target of sexual rumors, and nine percent had been victimized with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.
According to Espelage, “sexual harassment among adolescents is directly related to bullying,” particularly homophobic bullying.
Homophobic name-calling emerges among fifth- and sixth-grade bullies as a means of asserting power over other students, Espelage said.
Youths who are the targets of homosexual name-calling and jokes then feel compelled to demonstrate they are not gay or lesbian by sexually harassing peers of the opposite sex.
About 16 percent of students in the study reported that they had been the targets of homophobic name-calling or jokes, and nearly five percent of youths reported that this harassment happened to them often.
On the surveys, youths were asked an open-ended question about their most upsetting experience of sexual harassment.
Fourteen percent of students who reported being victimized negated their experiences by writing that their peers’ behaviors were “not really sexual harassment” because the incidents were “meaningless” or intended as jokes.
“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.”
Youths who were dismissive of sexual harassment experiences also were more likely to perpetrate homophobic name-calling, the researchers found.
While students reported that large proportions of these sexual harassment incidents occurred in places such as school hallways, classrooms, gym locker rooms, or gym classes where faculty and staff members ostensibly might witness them, the researchers found that many teachers, school officials, and staff members failed to acknowledge that sexual harassment occurred in their schools.
Many of these adults also were unaware that they were mandated by school district or federal policies to protect students from sexual harassment, Espelage said.
“These findings highlight the importance of making sexual harassment prevention efforts a priority in U.S. school districts, and that will require the efforts of students, faculty and staff members, school administrators, and practitioners such as school psychologists,” Espelage said.
“Schools need to have a consistently enforced policy that clearly defines sexual harassment and establishes regulations against engaging in such behavior. School officials also must provide guidelines for faculty and staff members on how to address these incidents and how to respond appropriately to student reports of sexual harassment.”
Sexual harassment experiences varied across socio-demographic groups, depending on students’ age, race, and sex. For example, females were at greatest risk of sexual harassment, while African-American girls and boys were at greatest risk of being victimized by romantic partners, the researchers found.