4 of 5 Students Sexually Harassed at School, Poll Finds
WASHINGTON--Four out of five students in grades 8 through 11--including 76 percent of boys--say they have been sexually harassed at school, according to the first nationally representative survey on the issue.
Of the 85 percent of girls reporting harassment at least once in their school careers, nearly one in three--compared with roughly one in five boys--said they are "often'' sexually harassed, defined for purposes of the study as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life.''
Two-thirds of all boys and slightly more than half of all girls admit they have harassed someone at school.
The survey asked students if they had experienced any of 14 types of behavior--half involving physical contact--that ranged from being leered at or joked about to being forced to do something sexual other than kissing.
The survey, released here last week, found that the psychological effects of harassment are most profound among girls. For example, 70 percent of girls, but only 24 percent of boys, said the experience made them very or somewhat upset.
Girls also appear to suffer educationally in disproportionate numbers. One-third who have been harassed said the experience made them want to miss school, compared with only 12 percent of boys.
Although girls report that their tormentors typically are male classmates, one-fourth said they had been harassed by a teacher or another school employee. African-American girls are more likely than whites and Hispanics to be bothered by a school worker.
The field survey of 1,632 students was conducted early this year by Louis Harris & Associates for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
'Epidemic' Is Seen
The survey expands on issues addressed in the foundation's 1992 report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls,'' which the group said revealed disturbing patterns of gender bias and inequity in precollegiate education. (See Education Week, Feb. 12, 1992.)
Anne L. Bryant, the foundation's executive director, said the survey is important because it documents the "epidemic proportion of sexual harassment in schools.''
"When you see a figure like 81 percent,'' she said, referring to the percentage of all students who say they have been harassed, "you have to sit up and take notice.''
Ms. Bryant also described as "very disturbing'' the finding that harassment exacts a heavy toll on girls emotionally and educationally.
Others, however, adopted a more cautionary approach in interpreting the survey findings.
Eddie N. Williams, the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank here that focuses on African-American concerns, said that while the study makes a "valuable contribution,'' he wonders whether behaviors that could be considered normal "adolescent sexual exploration'' should be labeled sexual harassment.
"Is a look a form of harassment?'' he asked. "Kids go through all kinds of gestures and looks.''
A.A.U.W. officials and consultants said in interviews they were surprised by the high proportion of boys who said they had been sexually harassed.
"That explodes some of the stereotypes about who it happens to,'' said Saundra Nettles, an adviser to the survey project who is a principal research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University.
Nevertheless, experts said the survey makes clear that sexual harassment is more of a problem for girls than boys.
Two-thirds of the girls said they experienced harassment often or occasionally, compared with 49 percent of the boys. Similarly, 32 percent of girls, but only 13 percent of boys, said they did not want to talk as much in class after being harassed.
Nan D. Stein, who directs a project on sexual harassment in schools at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, ascribed great significance to such findings.
"That lets us know Title IX is being violated,'' she said, referring to the 1972 federal law that bars sexual discrimination in schools receiving federal funds.
The type of harassment visited on girls also differs from that experienced by boys, the survey found.
Many more girls than boys said they had been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way or intentionally brushed up against in a sexual way.
And more than twice as many girls as boys--38 percent versus 17 percent--have had their way blocked in a sexual way, according to the survey.
Of the 14 categories of harassment students were asked about, boys more often than girls reported being harassed in four ways: being shown, given, or left sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes; being called homosexual--the type of harassment boys found most upsetting; having clothing pulled off or down; and being spied on while dressing or bathing.
School employees were cited as harassers by one in four girls and one in 10 boys. One-third of African-American girls said they had been harassed by a school employee, compared with 25 percent of white girls and 17 percent of Hispanic girls.
Ms. Bryant said the survey shows that schools need to have strict policies forbidding sexual harassment. Only 26 percent of the survey respondents said their schools had such policies. The majority, 57 percent, said they were not sure.
To improve that situation, the A.A.U.W. has sent the survey, model school policies on sexual harassment, and plans for workshops for adults and students to its 1,750 local branches.
Copies of the survey, "Hostile Hallways,'' can be obtained for $8.95 each for A.A.U.W. members and $11.95 each for nonmembers, plus $4.00 for shipping, from the A.A.U.W. Sales Office, P.O. Box 251, Annapolis Junction, Md. 20701-0251; (800) 225-9998, extension 246.