Sounds daunting, doesn’t it? But as school leaders, we need to face up to it. Sexual harassment has happened or is happening in your middle school. According to a 2016 study, 43 percent of middle school students reported they had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment, such as sexual comments, jokes, or gestures. That’s nearly half of all middle school students. It’s highly unlikely your school is an exception.
This past February, a California school district was sued for being “deliberately indifferent to” one girl’s sexual harassment, which had become “so severe and pervasive and objectively offensive that it deprived her of access to educational opportunities or benefits.”
As this case illustrates and researchers corroborate, too often school staff, both leadership and teachers, minimize incidents of sexual harassment or fail to realize or acknowledge that it was even happening. All schools need to have a clear and consistent policy in place for identifying and responding to reports of harassment behavior. But beyond having a strong policy, we need to talk to our students.
Adolescence is the time to take this on. We need to talk with our students about how to set and respect personal boundaries, discuss gender stereotypes and harmful “boys will be boys” attitudes about traditional masculinity. Above all, we need to let our students know we will take reports of harassment seriously.
Start with a shared read.
Barbara Dee’s Maybe He Just Likes You is a great book to use as a common read for middle school teachers. There is nothing in this book that will make teachers uncomfortable about reading it with kids either. So, using it as a school read aloud is a great idea.
Dee presents a relevant middle school–based story where a girl becomes the object of a game. The boys who invent the game get points for saying and doing things to a particular girl. This book serves up an amazing starting place for all middle schools to create a culture of self- and social-awareness and respect.
Open up the conversation.
We all know staying silent about things that might be difficult to discuss is a mistake. So, hold a staff meeting about sexual harassment and what to look for. Now that you’ve all read the same book, talk about what you might see at your middle school. Then start to build a plan for how you handle certain kinds of incidents. The more you begin to use common language and responses to similar types of behavior, the more middle school students will understand expectations and consequences.
Develop a sexual harassment policy.
Many resources out there can help you develop the policy that works best for your school. Make sure all staff members and teachers take part in establishing the policy. No one should be left unaware or unprepared to manage sexual harassment in middle school.
Harassment-Free Hallways is published by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation and can serve as a stand-alone policy to help your school community get clear on its stance.
Practice identifying behavior and talking to students about it.
It’s one challenge to talk honestly about sexual harassment as a staff, yet it’s different to do so with kids. But open discussion with students about what sexual harassment is, how to recognize it, and what to do if they see it or if it happens to them is essential to creating a safe school environment. A great guidance counselor, if you have one, can guide teachers through this work.
Some schools may hire outside help to get teachers ready to work with kids in this capacity. Common Sense Media has a great tool for talking to kids about sexual harassment to get you started. And that’s just it, we have to get started.
As school leaders, we need to commit to ending sexual harassment in our middle schools. Facing it head on is necessary.
Have an interesting policy or position on this at your school? Share your ideas in our Principal Life Facebook group!