Following a recent killing spree in Isla Vista, California, the Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen opened up a frank and public discussion about women’s experiences with sexual assault and harassment. But what about girls? Lee Skallerup Bessette talks about the harassment, often hidden, that happens in schools, and how we can help develop a better culture — in and out of the classroom.
When I was in Grade Nine, I was in a math class with my best friend. We were both “good girls,” geeks even, placed in the advanced classes, competing for highest GPA. I was also a tomboy, wearing athletic clothing (often oversized reflecting the styles of the time), with no make-up and little attention paid to my hair. We sat in the front of the class, and next to us sat two boys. They were “cooler” than we were, and at first we enjoyed their attention. Until they started groping us, sticking their hands up our shirts and our skirts and shorts. The teacher (who was male) did nothing save ask us all to “keep it down.” We asked them, begged them, to stop, and when they didn’t, we moved, but instead, the harassment got worse, with them hurling insults and curses and rape threats at us. Again, the teacher did nothing, save ask us to keep our voices down. We avoided the boys in the hallway or outside, as they continued to make lewd comments and gestures at us whenever they saw us.
We were 14. It was not the first time I was sexually harassed and assaulted at school, but it was by far the most scarring because of the complete indifference of the teacher towards the boys behavior. By simply telling both us and the boys to “keep it down” we were sent the message that a) the boys behavior was ok as long as it was kept to a whisper and b) somehow the girls were at fault as well. I shouldn’t have had to preface the story in the previous paragraph by describing what kind of girls my friend and I were and what we typically wore, but in the almost 25 years since the math class from hell, not much has changed, and if I hadn’t, how many of you would have leapt to the conclusion that we were somehow inviting this kind of attention through our dress or behavior.
My story is not uncommon. Look at the #yesallwomen hashtag on Twitter (or from a WOC perspective, the earlier #fasttailedgirls), and you can see the damage that young girls, now women, have suffered because this kind of behavior has been tolerated in our society and institutions. If I didn’t tell anyone about what was happening in my math class, it was in part because I didn’t believe anything would be done about it and in part because I believed that this was “typical” behavior to be expected of a 14-year-old boy. I also was not a trouble-maker, and saw that fighting back or complaining would cause too much trouble, so I endured. I sucked it up. I remained silent.
But female students are refusing to stay silent any longer. The #YesAllWomen hashtag empowered a number of young women to protest the dress codes that schools often impose on girls, in the name of keeping girls “safe” and to keep the “focus on learning” and to “keep distractions to a minimum.” I wore oversized tracksuits and sweats, but that didn’t stop those two guys from harassing me. And who was more distracted, the boys, or my friend and I who were the target of a barrage of insults and taunts daily? Girls are more than their physical appearance, and boys can and should be taught to treat women with respect, regardless of dress. Girls should not fear going to school because of unwanted sexual attention. Or to be publicly humiliated by the school because of what they wear.
Possible Legal Issues
Recently, there have been a number of lawsuits against US institutions of higher education citing violations of Title IX due to the colleges’ handling of sexual assault on campus. 55 campuses are currently under Federal investigation for possible Title IX violations. Universities are more concerned often with optics than with justice. Students are being expelled for reporting rape. Professors are being denied tenure and terminated for speaking out. These students in college who are perpetrating these assaults didn’t become this way when they entered the hallowed halls of higher education.
Certainly, we can throw out the cliché “it starts at home,” or throw up our hands and blame “society”; but we cannot let the institutions that we do have direct control over off that easily.
Changing the Culture
If it is happening outside of school, it is happening inside of school, too. We can act and work to change the culture within our institution, one that doesn’t blame and shame girls, or excuse boys. We can make and actually implement policies that protect all the students, as well as a charter of values that create an environment where the policies are rarely invoked. We can look at the classrooms we create, the materials that we use, the language we utter, and decide we can and have to do better.
Title IX applies as much to high schools as it does to colleges, and it isn’t just about sports. How many girls at your school are afraid because of sexual harassment? We are creating unequal learning environments because we continue to ignore, excuse, and sometimes even encourage the objectification of girls within the school system. And this isn’t about punishing girls either, getting rid of dance or cheer or fashion shows. It is about educating students, all students about respecting the personhood of their fellow classmates.
As a parent of a young daughter, I will tell her that unwanted sexual advances are unacceptable and that if they happen to her at school, that I will help her raise hell about it. As a parent of a young son, I will teach him that his gender/hormones/peer-pressure does not excuse treating anyone in a demeaning and degrading way. And if I hear that he has behaved that way, he will be held accountable. And I won’t explain it to him by asking him if he would want me, his mother, or his sister treated that way.
I will tell him, that’s not how you treat another human being.
- What are some of the concrete steps that education leaders can take in order to make their schools a safer place?
- How does harassment (or even “microaggression”) prevent girls from participating fully in learning activities?
Image credits: San Jose Library