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School Harassment--An Update

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One year after the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, one year after the Tailhook convention, the adolescent girls of America have issued a back-to-school warning to the nation--to their teachers and administrators, and to their male peers--that sexual harassment is alive and well in our schools, and they want it to stop.

Thousands of them have responded to a survey published in the September issue of Seventeen magazine, a survey that will provide data for the first in-depth national study of this problem.

Teenage girls representing almost every major racial and linguistic group, from cities and towns like Nogales, Ariz.; Plains, Ga.; Red Devil, Alaska; Queens, N.Y.; Benton, Ark.; Baltimore; Los Angeles; San Antonio; and Orem, Utah, tell stories that reveal the tenacity and pervasiveness of sexual harassment in our schools. What they describe is more than a phenomenon akin to the Navy's Tailhook scandal, for unlike that incident, the harassment is not localized to one site during one week. It is a secret that happens in public every day, in public, private, and parochial schools nationwide.

Their letters arrive by the hundreds daily, screaming to be read: "OPEN,'' "URGENT,'' "PLEASE READ'' are scribbled on the envelopes. Sometimes the writers give their names and addresses, sometimes they don't; a few have included self-addressed, stamped envelopes asking for more information about the subject of sexual harassment in schools.

Inside the envelopes are chilling stories, handwritten on lined notebook paper or on perfumed stationery. Only a few have been typed. All beg for attention, for answers, and above all for some type of justice.

The testimonials are voluntary elaborations on questions from a survey sponsored and designed by the Project on Equal Education Rights of the îï÷ Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. Designed as a self-reporting questionnaire, the survey promises to be the largest ever conducted on sexual harassment in the schools. The results will be available sometime early next year.

Meanwhile, this much is becoming clear:

Most of the harassment the girls write about happens in full and plain view of others--in public places such as hallways, lunchrooms, physical-education playing fields, on school buses, school playgrounds, in classrooms, and at school-sponsored concerts and assemblies. Usually there are witnesses and bystanders.

Girls describe attempts to snap their bras, lift their skirts, and grope at their bodies; nasty, personalized graffiti and sexual jokes and taunts; unwanted physical attention. They also relate outright physical assaults, even rape.

Even when they may be safe from physical harm, girls in almost every school in this country face the dilemma of finding ways to avoid degrading and upsetting incidents that have become acceptable and ordinary--incidents misidentified as "flirting,'' "initiation rites,'' or some other innocuous occurrences that are in fact disruptions of the educational environment for young girls.

The letter-writers indicate that while the perpetrators of their harassment are most often their peers, sometimes they are adults. And adults who refuse to intervene, either through words or actions, are special targets of anger and frustration in the letters. The loss of trust that comes from such inaction can extend to witnesses of the harassment, boys as well as girls. Adults' silences are correctly seen by these young people as negligence that allows harassment to continue.

The schools these girls write about have become unsafe, uncaring, and unjust. Yet, in their letters, the young women offer suggestions about what schools can do to eliminate and prevent sexual harassment. They propose holding assemblies for the student body, creating peer-support groups, requiring seminars for teachers, and instituting incremental disciplinary actions against repeat harassers. Their solutions are creative and progressive, and they deserve to be heard.

This pernicious problem in our schools is a national disgrace at any time, but all the more so in this political season. To thousands of adolescent girls, school may be teaching more about oppression than freedom; more about silence than autonomy. We need to heed their warnings and listen to their stories.

Nan Stein is a research associate at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass., where she directs a national research project on sexual harassment and child sexual abuse in the schools and provides training to school personnel on these subjects.

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