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Survey Paints 'Picture' of School Sexual Harassment

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Girls who say they have been sexually harassed in school report that suggestive gestures, looks, comments, or jokes are the most common kind of harassment and that most harassment at school occurs in public and is initiated by male peers, according to an unscientific survey of readers of Seventeen magazine.

Thirty-nine percent of the girls who responded to the survey said they had been harassed at school on a daily basis during the previous year. The respondents ranged in age from 9 to 19.

The survey questionnaire, designed by researchers at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and co-sponsored by the center and the îï÷ Legal Defense and Education Fund, appeared in the September issue of the popular girls' magazine. The results were released last week.

A total of 4,200 girls from 4,000 schools in 50 states--all of whom said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment at school--replied to the poll. Seventeen has a paid circulation of 1.9 million.

The Wellesley researchers based their report on an analysis of a random sample of 2,002 of the questionnaires returned, including a 10 percent representation of responses from members of minority groups.

Touching, Telling

The survey was not intended to document the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools, its authors said, but rather was a first attempt to obtain a "big picture'' of the phenomenon nationally.

"This was the way to get, 'What is the typical scenario?' '' said Nan Stein, a research associate at the Wellesley center and the principal author of the report.

After unwanted looks and gestures, reported by 89 percent of the girls, the form of harassment respondents mentioned next most often was unwanted pinching, grabbing, or other touching, which 83 percent cited. Readers could indicate having been subjected to more than one type of harassment.

Twenty-seven percent of the respondents said they had been pressured to engage in some form of sexual conduct; one in 10 said they had been forced to engage in such conduct.

Most harassment was committed by male students; just 4 percent of the girls reported being harassed by school staff members.

Most of the girls--76 percent--told at least one person about the incidents of harassment. The girls were most likely to tell a friend, although nearly one in five told a parent or a teacher or administrator.

When a teacher or administrator knew about an incident, nothing happened to the accused harasser in 45 percent of such cases, the survey responses indicate.

"It is very clear from even this small study the attitude [of tolerance toward harassment] is pervasive and the schools' response is inappropriate,'' Helen Neuborne, the executive director of the îï÷ Legal Defense and Education Fund, asserted.

Value Despite Weaknesses

But the way in which the study was conducted means its results cannot be extrapolated for the nation at large, Jacob H. Ludwig, the chief methodologist for the Gallup Organization in Princeton, N.J., cautioned in an interview last week.

The lack of a targeted, representative population from which responses were obtained as well as the survey's small response rate--some 0.2 percent of the magazine's circulation--made for an unscientific study, Mr. Ludwig said.

In a separate project, the American Association of University Women, in conjunction with Louis Harris & Associates, is currently polling a random, scientific sample of boys and girls about sexual harassment in school. The results are due in June.

The higher cost of conducting such a scientific survey was the primary reason the Wellesley researchers did not opt for that method, according to Nancy L. Marshall, the research director for the Seventeen survey.

But the survey is useful nonetheless, its sponsors argued.

"It allows us to leap right in to solutions'' to the problem of school-based sexual harassment, Ms. Stein said.

The poll, she said, underlines the need for in-service training on sexual harassment for school staff members and the need for setting and enforcing school policies against such conduct.

Ms. Stein said she planned to present the results of the survey this week at a national gathering of sex-equity administrators from the state departments of education.

In addition, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund plans to put together resource kits on sexual harassment in schools, Ms. Neuborne said.

Copies of the new study, "Secrets in Public: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools,'' are available for $11 each from the Publications Department, Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, 106 Central St., Wellesley, Mass. 02181-8259; (617) 283-2510.

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