Four of Five Schoolkids Experience Sexual Harassment

From the WebMD Archives

June 6, 2001 (Washington) -- Just what are kids learning in school these days?

According to a survey of more than 2,000 public school students in 8th through 11th grades, 83% of girls and 79% of boys reported having been sexually harassed at some point during school time. Moreover, more than one in five students said they have experienced such harassment "often."

The survey used the definition of sexual harassment as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life." According to the report, nearly all students understand what harassment is, and definitions did not differ much between girls and boys.

The upshot is that "sexual harassment is part of everyday life for boys and girls at school," says Jacqueline Woods, executive director of the American Association of University Women, the group that commissioned the study.

Forget "boys will be boys" or "it's just part of growing up," says National Education Association President Bob Chase. "This is torment."

The survey found that most of school harassment is student-on-student, although 7% is teacher-on-student. It also determined that girls are far more likely to feel self-conscious, embarrassed, and less confident because of a harassment incident.

Eight years ago, the association conducted a similar survey with comparable results on the prevalence of sexual harassment. But in this survey, seven in 10 students said their school had a sexual harassment policy, compared to only 26% of students in 1993.

"I'm not surprised by these results," David Fassler, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., tells WebMD. "This is a continuing problem, that kids do feel harassed and often unsafe. This kind of harassment can have devastating effects on kids. We see kids who have actually gotten suicidal as a result of this."

Fassler, who chairs the American Psychiatric Association's council on children, adolescence, and families, says several circumstances can increase the risk that harassment will cause long-term damage to children.

As examples, he cites repeated and persistent harassment of a child, along with harassment of a child by multiple children. In addition, a child is at a high risk for emotional injury if he or she is a loner and lacks a peer support system. Also at risk are kids who already have emotional problems or physical disabilities.

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According to the survey, children said the three most disturbing forms of harassment were having sexual rumors spread about them, having clothing pulled down in a sexual way, and being called gay or lesbian.

"A lot of kids during adolescence are confused about their sexuality, so if you are being taunted about your sexual orientation, it can be particularly upsetting," Fassler says.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Watch group last week issued a report giving U.S. schools a "failing grade" in keeping gay and lesbian students safe. The group claims these students face more bullying than any other group in American high schools.

According to Fassler, surveys indicate that gay and lesbian adolescents are two and half times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight classmates.

As for solutions to school harassment, Chase says, "Every school needs a formal code of conduct. The code must be clearly communicated to every adult, student, and parent in the school." This code must be strictly enforced, he says, with harassment incidents "immediately confronted."

The most effective school programs "train all staff to spot offending behavior and intervene, from custodial staff and cafeteria workers, to secretaries and school bus drivers," he says.

The American Association of University Women says it is partnering with the National Education Association to set up a task force to address sexual harassment in schools. Nevertheless, Chase adds, "It's a societal problem. It should not be seen as only a school responsibility."

"Realistically, it's going to take us a whole generation to really change this behavior," Fassler tells WebMD. "We really need to start with kids in the earliest grades. We need to raise a whole generation of kids who just don't even think about engaging in this kind of behavior. Prevention and early intervention is much more effective than attempts to deal with the problems later on, once the behavior patterns have already been established."

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