Twice a month, 8th grade English teacher Stephany Copeland hosts what she calls a “gender assembly” for the 55 girls she teaches at the KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, N.J. They’re usually oriented around things that the girls want to talk about, and given their age, that often means the power dynamics between boys and girls.
“Little things will happen—a boy will take a picture of a girl after school, and she will say, ‘Delete that,’ and he’ll refuse, so we do things like address that,” Copeland said.
One of her most recent sessions focused on the lesson that it’s not OK for boys to grab or touch girls without asking—even if they mean it affectionately, or if they’ve gone out once or twice.
Copeland’s work predates the #MeToo movement, but her focus on relationships and consent, many advocates say, is uncommon: Both topics are frequently missing from whatever health or sex education U.S. students receive.
And as they hasten to point out, that is a puzzling omission. From the first time that a girl got her ponytail dunked in an inkwell, schools have been places where girls (and, in some cases, boys, too) have experienced gender-based harassment. Given the amount of time children spend in them, schools are also the most logical places to teach young people how to recognize harassment—and how to avoid perpetuating it.
Now women are calling the question: Can the #MeToo movement, which has brought widespread attention to harassment in the boardroom, behind restaurant kitchen doors, and on the sports field, do the same for schools?
After all, schools are where boys and girls receive the bulk of their socialization about gender roles—and where many of the norms underpinning male-female relationships crystallize. That includes some harmful ones—such as the advice given to girls that being pestered by a boy really just means he’s enamored, and to submit to it good-humoredly.
Fewer than half the states require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” as part of a sex ed. program and similarly, a majority don’t require discussion of healthy relationships, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an advocacy group that tracks reproductive rights globally.
And even high-quality programs that do include those topics are frequently limited in duration.
“It seems much more the norm that they are doing one session, or one point of contact. Multi-session, multiple opportunities for interaction is less common,” said Kate Rohdenburg, the program director for WISE, which provides crisis-response support and also works with 10 school districts in Vermont and New Hampshire on programs across the grades to prevent gender-based violence.
All of that means that many, if not most, schools have gaps in what they teach about harassment. And what students don’t learn about relationships and ways to interact can be filled in with other substitutes: anecdote, rumor, social media, or pornography.
“There are very few schools I come across that are doing anything on this subject whatsoever, whether it’s talking about consent as a general concept, or practically, what the tools look like to practice consent,” said Tahir Anderson Duckett, the executive director of ReThink, a group working with teachers to prevent sexual violence. “It’s so valuable for schools to start focusing on this kind of stuff because it’s really a vacuum. And when you look at what information is going to fill that vacuum, you should get uneasy really quickly.”
Catalyst for Change?
At the very least, #MeToo has unleashed a torrent of examples of sexual harassment of school-age children: Hundreds of students are now sharing their stories under that hashtag and a companion, #MeTooK12, which was begun by Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. The nonprofit focuses on drawing attention to schools’ responsibility under Title IX, a federal law to protect against gender discrimination, including sexual violence and bullying.
More broadly than their legal responsibilities, though, advocates are trying to highlight schools’ potential to help students recognize what harassment looks like, how to stop it from happening, and how to avoid becoming perpetrators. One key place: a sex education curriculum that includes units on healthy relationships—not solely on biology, prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted infections, or pregnancy.
“I think it’s pretty basic: How we treat each other matters. If and when people are ready to explore sexuality with someone else, it needs to be legal, safe, and pleasurable for both people,” said Shafia Zaloom, a San Francisco-based health educator who works with public and private schools. “Kids need to understand the fundamentals of human decency are essential to every sexual encounter.
“The big aspect of #MeToo as a sex educator, in many ways, is that it validates the importance of what those of us who are teaching classes like this are trying to do,” she said.
Generally, these advocates say, training on the nuances of consent can start in early grades and still be appropriate: Very young children understand such concepts as body autonomy.
That’s not to say it’s a breeze—telling kids that they don’t have to hug grandma if they don’t want to can run counter to years of parental expectations—but the advocates say that avoiding topics such as consent can have catastrophic effects down the road. “If we tell kids they’re too young to talk about this, we’re reinforcing the idea that they need to keep their mouths shut, that this is too big or too dangerous to ask for help,” said Rohdenburg.
Several groups, too, are taking a critical look at the norms that are typically glossed over when schools talk about relationships, but underpin much of what happens in them: the stereotype, for example, that men are supposed to be aggressors and women sexual gatekeepers.
ReThink, Duckett’s organization, emphasizes adults’ role in challenging the messages that boys learn as adolescents about masculinity. One of its core ideas is that, by the examples they set, teachers are among the most important players in terms of preventing future sexual violence.
“I don’t think they’ve thought of themselves as being the key force here, but ... what’s happening in those school walls is a big part of what kids are learning is normal,” Duckett said. “Is it OK for me to touch somebody without their consent? Is it OK for someone to use violent language about women? Is it OK for me to make a remark or say something about how girls act, or how boys act in relationships?
“If a student does something that violates [such a tenet], a teacher, by interrupting it, makes it no longer normal. And I think that’s so important,” he said.
Educators, even those like Copeland who aren’t health or sex-ed. teachers, say they’ve done so partly out of necessity. Too many girls have come to her with troubling questions about how TV figures, peers, and politicians have talked about women.
And so she has spent several of her assemblies helping her female students think about how aspects of gender and behavior are socially constructed, especially by the media.
Why, for example, do the most popular Google searches that contain the word “girls” result in images of women in various stages of undress? Why do TV shows often show women in catty rivalries with one another? Why are women “period shamed” and taught to use coded words for menstruation?
“How gender norms developed and why they developed the way they have—I think that would get us in a better place in 8th grade, when the power dynamics are really becoming very evident in relationships,” Copeland said.
The Long View
On the policy front, some point to encouraging signs.
Even before the Harvey Weinstein story blew open, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which advocates for comprehensive sex education across grade levels, noticed a trend of more states introducing bills that would require coverage of violence prevention or consent in sex ed. While probably partly linked to the fallout from high-profile incidents within higher education, it shows that there’s increasingly a recognition that consent needs to be addressed long before students move into their first dorm rooms, said Chitra Panjabi, the president and CEO of SIECUS.
“We’re in a point in time where this movement can be a catalyst for folks to recognize that we need to push our sexuality education policies further,” said Panjabi. “We have these tools; let’s advocate for them to go into schools.”
SIECUS has begun its own campaign, called #teachthem, and developed a toolkit for educators to lobby on behalf of policies that support comprehensive sex education. Currently, California alone requires schools to discuss the topic of “affirmative consent” in sex ed., while Virginia allows but does not mandate it.
Legislation supporting the teaching of consent have been introduced in states such as Maryland, Michigan, and Rhode Island, but have not yet become law.
Bright spots aside, the advocates believe there is still much work to be done.
“I’m not certain that schools have gotten around to responding to #MeToo yet,” Duckett said. “I think that they will; I think that they have to. But all these institutions move slowly.”
This article was originally published with the headline, “What Do Schools Teach About Sexual Harassment?”
Correspondent Lisa Stark contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2018 edition of Education Week as Harassment a Pressing Issue for Schools