First Person

Editor's blog: Sexual harassment prevalent in school

As a junior high school student, I still remember trying to dodge the boys known for sneaking up behind you and grabbing your…how to say it in the kindest possible way… rear end, derriere, tush.

Then there was the bra snapping and some antics at early teen parties that really make me wonder whether certain boys known for inappropriate groping are now living life as registered sex offenders. Then there were the labels – being called a “blue nun” one week and something wretched like “slut” the next.

I remember not liking this, but also believing there wasn’t much that could be done about it. You couldn’t exactly tell a teacher.

In fact, I also had a junior high school teacher who did much the same thing. He rubbed female students’ shoulders in social studies class. He coached our girls’ basketball team, leering at us all the while. We mocked him mercilessly rather than tell the principal. Somehow, we already knew tenure would protect him.

AAUW report confirms sexual harassment common in school

With so much of an emphasis on bullying these days, a new report on sexual harassment in schools caught my eye.

Turns out, many young women – and young men – experience far worse forms of sexual harassment at school.

A report released this week by the American Association of University Women found that sexual harassment “pervades the lives of students in seventh through 12th grades.

Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, the most comprehensive, nationally representative research conducted in the past decade on sexual harassment in middle and high schools, found that nearly half of those surveyed said they had been harassed during the 2010-2011 school year.

Of that number, a majority – or 87 percent – said that being harassed had a negative effect on them. Among the responses, one-third said they did not want to go to school as a result of the harassment. Another third said they felt sick to their stomachs.

One key finding reflects my own experiences: Students rarely report being sexually harassed at school. In fact, only about 9 percent of harassed students told a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school about being sexually harassed.

Verbal remarks most common form of harassment

Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) make up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was “far too common,” according to researchers. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means affected nearly one-third of students. And many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace were also sexually harassed in person.

sad teen girlAnd, while girls are more likely than boys to be sexually harassed (56 percent vs. 40 percent), girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed both in person (52 percent vs. 35 percent) and via text, e-mail, Facebook, or other electronic means (36 percent vs. 24 percent).

This finding confirms previous research showing that girls are sexually harassed more frequently than boys,  and that girls’ experiences tend to be more physical and intrusive than boys’ experiences.

The report “is a call to action to students, parents, teachers, and all of us who are concerned about the next generation,” said AAUW Executive Director Linda D. Hallman. “Many students feel sexual harassment is normal behavior, and often victims of sexual harassment in turn victimize other children. It’s a vicious cycle that exacts an enduring emotional toll on students.”

The bad news is  – unless you’ve got a school community willing to work on the problem – taking a school-based sexual harassment case to the courts is an uphill battle.

Court cases tough to prove

The courts recognize school liability for peer-to-peer sexual harassment, but the standard for proving a school’s liability is high.

In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1997/ 1999), the U.S. Supreme Court determined that four factors are required for a finding of a Title IX violation: School officials must have actual knowledge; officials with the authority to take remedial action instead show “deliberate indifference”; the harassment must have been severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive; and the harassment must have had the effect of denying the victim’s participation in educational programs or activities.

Rather than just another dose of bad news, however, the AAUW report is loaded with ideas on how to curb this pervasive problem. For instance, creating, publicizing, and enforcing sexual harassment policies and adhering to the requirements of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 are some ways schools can bring attention to the issue.

“Our report clearly shows that, in many instances, we are failing to provide the safe environment necessary for our children to succeed,” said Lisa Maatz, AAUW director of public policy and government relations. “Children and their families are too often left to fend for themselves when kids are harassed.”

Ain’t that the truth. But with knowledge, we can make change.

How to stop sexual harassment and help your children

  • Foster feelings of empathy and respect for others in your children.
  • Talk to your children about what healthy friendships and dating relationships look like.
  • Explain what sexual harassment and sexual assault are.
  • Take an interest in your children’s day, their friends, and the activities they’re involved in at school.
  • Encourage your children to know how to stand up for themselves and teach them assertiveness and self- defense.
  • Find out what your school’s sexual-harassment policy is, and make sure your children understand it.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.