The Issue: Sexual Harassment at School

The Biggest Mistakes Made by Parents and Educators:

It is distressing to find out your child is being sexually harassed by another student, it can also be equally upsetting to find out your child is the perpetrator in a sexual harassment incident. The best of parents can have a child on either side, one who behaves inappropriately or a child who is a victim. Avoiding the common mistakes parents and educators make can help prevent additional trauma to those involved. 

Part of the problem is there are many contradictory and confusing definitions of sexual harassment. Generally, it is not thought of as innocent flirting, playing around, or other types of behavior which the student may enjoy and welcome.

Unfortunately, even innocent behaviors may at times be misinterpreted as sexual harassment because the line between the two is not always clearly defined.

Sexual harassment is generally thought of as unwelcome sexual speech and behavior which is bad enough and/or happens often enough to make the child feel uncomfortable, scared or confused.

Some common forms of sexual harassment seen at the elementary level are:

Forcibly pulling up pants (wedgie) 
Pulling down pants
Flipping up skirts
Forcing kisses
Grabbing/touching a peer’s genitals
Calling others sexually offensive names
Passing sexually explicit notes
Making gender-demeaning comments
Commenting on genitals
Using sexual profanity
Participating in organized harassment of a peer
Exposing genitals

What parents can do:

As a teacher I witnessed parents making two main mistakes. Parents are often embarrassed and uncomfortable talking to their child about sexual harassment at school so they tell themselves the school has it covered. Parents should not count on the school to do it all.

Parents should define sexual harassment with their children and give their child specific age appropriate examples of inappropriate behavior in order to prevent their child from either being a victim or a perpetrator.

Asking the child for instances of inappropriate sexual behavior they may have witnessed with their peers can be good to jump-start the conversation. Ask your child to give you examples of what they think sexual harassment is and discuss their answers, then give your own examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior.

Your child is more likely to choose correct behaviors when they can draw from examples. Review the steps they should take if they suspect they are a victim, such as telling an adult. Young children need to be empowered by recognizing and learning how to handle unwanted comments or touching.

It is of the utmost importance, if your child comes to you about an incident that you remain calm and do not overreact, thus causing more trauma and discouraging the child from sharing with you in the future.

The second mistake parents make is when they find out their child is being accused of deviant behavior. Many parents first reaction is to defend their child, but this does not help. Many times I have seen parents jump to the defense of their child and believe their child’s altered version of the truth.

While I empathized and saw parental defensiveness as a normal reaction, I knew it was not a helpful reaction because it prevented a teachable moment during which the child could learn the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behavior with their peers.

Many children deny the behavior they are accused of, due to fear and embarrassment. The child will often state they were committing the harassment because they like the person or they just thought it was funny. The problem is compounded if the child is showing early signs of aggression and committing the act for the sake of demonstrating power over their victim.

The child who engages in sexual harassment may use such behavior as a vehicle through which they express frustration, anger, fear and a need to control others. Sometimes they may seem more like a bully to teachers, other students and to their victim.

It is important to find out “the why” of what your child did, was it for attention or an act of aggression?

Such inquiries on the part of the parent are particularly important if you have already worked with your child to understand and differentiate appropriate from inappropriate behaviors, yet the child has still crossed the line. Your findings will determine if it is time to seek outside help.

What the school can do:

Your child’s school should provide training to all staff which includes defining and giving examples of sexual harassment. It is essential to outline procedures and policies for handling reported cases, such as consequences to harassers and prevention strategies. This information must also be given to the parents and similar, age appropriate information needs to be given to the students.

Consequences for sexual harassment should be appropriate to the magnitude of the offense and made known as clearly as possible to teachers, parents and students.

Educators must also be able to differentiate between sexual harassment and the normal sexual development and sexual curiosity seen in every healthy child.

Looking at the examples listed above it may seem clear-cut what sexual harassment is. However, there are too many stories in the news of children being inappropriately disciplined for what is defined as sexual harassment. For example, take the 2008 story of the 6 year-old boy in Maryland who smacked a girl’s bottom. School officials called the police and wrote an incident report calling it, “Sexual Touching Against Student, Offensive” which was to remain in his permanent record.

As a teacher I would guess the 6 year-old accused “perpetrator” in this story will have more long-term damage than the girl who got her bottom smacked. This child is one of a hundred if not thousands of students across the country who are being dealt with harshly as schools fearful of lawsuits struggle with zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies.

This story exemplifies one of the biggest mistakes made by school administrators– not applying good judgment when handling reported harassment cases. It is important to keep the approach age-appropriate rather than treating each case in cookie-cutter fashion.

For younger children, some behaviors which seem to fall into the murky, no-tolerance mire of sexual harassment could be treated as a teachable moment that the child will learn from and remember for years to come rather than a traumatic event that will persevere into adulthood.

Sexual harassment in schools is an ongoing problem but with the schools and parents both working in tandem to educate our young children, hopefully the incidents will become fewer and further between.

See Also: Gifted Psychology

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