Nearly a half of all middle and high schoolers experienced sexual harassment in the last school year, according to a New York Times article from earlier this week. The director of research at the American Association of University Women, the organization that conducted the survey, stated that sexual harassment is "almost a normal part of the school day."
A "normal part" of the school day should be math class and school lunch, not sexual harassment. And this has repercussions for the future. As the survey results demonstrate, sexual harassment breeds absenteeism, insomnia, and concentration problems. It impedes success at school and in the workplace. It affects girls more than boys, casting doubt on the future of equality between women and men in the workplace.
Whether the unwanted sexual behavior is happening at school or in the workplace, and whether it is directed towards boys or girls, teenagers should know that the law can protect them from such behavior. Many people know generally that there is a federal law that protects employees against sexual harassment in the work place (Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act). Less well known are laws such as Title IX and its state and local counterparts, which protects students - including those in colleges and universities - from sexual harassment in school. (This law received media attention earlier this year when a group of current and former students filed a Title IX complaint against Yale University for inadequately responding to a hostile sexual environment on campus).
To be protected by Title IX, students generally have to first make a complaint about the sexual harassment to the school administration - a step that can be difficult, as illustrated by the survey results showing that only 9% of the teenagers who were harassed reported the incident to an adult at the school. In order to make it safe for students to come forward and complain about sexual harassment there needs to be more education about this topic in schools. Educators need to make it clear to students what constitutes sexual harassment and to whom they need to complain, if they believe they have been sexually harassed. It is also imperative that schools establish a clear mandate that those who do come forward will not be retaliated against.
Our society needs to provide a safe environment for teenagers to study and to work, and ensure that they feel empowered and protected enough to speak up when they encounter unwanted behavior. Otherwise we are disadvantaging our youths even before they enter their adult work lives.
For more information about sexual harassment, see http://www.workharassment.net/; http://www.brandeis.edu/investigate/gender/teenSH1/index.html.