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What's the Role of Schools in Teaching About Sexual Harassment?

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

02/02/2018

The article: "What Do Schools Teach About Sexual Harassment?" by Stephen Sawchuk in Education Week, January 26, 2018, http://bit.ly/2ElBcfw

In this article in Education Week, Stephen Sawchuk reports that most school sex education programs have very little content on sexual harassment and consent in relationships. This is a puzzling omission, say some educators. "From the first time that a girl got her ponytail dunked in an inkwell, schools have been places where girls (and, in some cases, boys, too) have experienced gender-based harassment," says Sawchuk. "Given the amount of time children spend in them, schools are also the most logical places to teach young people how to recognize harassment - and how to avoid perpetrating it."

The #MeToo movement is adding urgency to this question, with students sharing stories from the adult world - and their own experiences in the companion hashtag #MeTooK12, which was launched by Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. All this casts new light on the age-old view that girls should put up with touching and teasing because it's a sign that a boy likes them. If schools don't give clear guidance, students will get their "education" in this area through rumors, anecdotes, social media, and pornography.

How early should schools get into all this? Students in the elementary grades need lessons on body autonomy, personal space, and appropriate and inappropriate touching. But teaching them about assertiveness can be tricky - the idea that you don't have to hug grandma if you feel uncomfortable can get pushback from families. However, there can be much worse consequences from not talking about these issues. "If we tell kids they're too young to talk about this," says Kate Rohdenburg of the WISE program in Vermont and New Hampshire, "we're reinforcing the idea that they need to keep their mouths shut…"

Outside of formal sex ed programs, educators' personal behavior is key, as are the limits they set (or don't set) when they see inappropriate touching and hear disrespectful and sexist comments in classrooms, corridors, cafeterias, and playgrounds. In addition, there are the questions students privately ask educators about how women are talked about and treated by peers, TV personalities, and politicians, and the norms around them. "Why, for example, do the most popular Google searches that contain the word 'girls' result in images of women in various stages of undress?" writes Sawchuk. "Why do TV shows often show women in catty rivalries with one another? Why are women 'period shamed' and taught to use coded words for menstruation?" What adults say in these informal conversations can have a major impact on how young people think about gender norms, relationships, and harassment.




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