The #MeToo movement has felled the careers of some of the most celebrated and influential men in the country while exposing the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in industry after industry. As more women come forward, it seems no place is immune: whether it be inside Hollywood, the Washington Beltway, or the news room.
The same is true, it turns out, of the schoolhouse.
Forty percent of teachers and school administrators report having been the victim of sexual harassment or assault in their jobs or witnessing such incidents, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by the Education Week Research Center. The survey gives a rare look at the prevalence of this issue in the K12 workplace.
Twenty-five percent of female educators say they have personally experienced sexual harassment or assault on the job, even though the profession is predominantly made up of women and most teachers spend much of their day in a classroom, isolated from their coworkers.
Six percent of male educators say they have been sexually harassed or assaulted at work, according to the survey.
Permissive school cultures where abusers are not punished, as well as power differentials between early-career teachers and their superiors, create situations that can be ripe for abuse, experts told Education Week.
Nearly 60 percent of teachers and administrators who said they had either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment or assault said they did not report it to any authority.
But while enduring abuse in silence can be emotionally fraught for educators who do not report it, coming forward doesn’t always bring closure, either.
Reluctant to Go Public
Rachel Man, a teacher in Prince Georges County, Maryland, said she has often second-guessed her decision to formally accuse a fellow teacher of groping her in an empty classroom after school hours.
It happened in 2013, near the end of Man’s first semester as a teacher. Initially, Man said she told no one because she was afraid she was being “dramatic.” But she eventually reported the incident to the school’s principal and then to the police. The male teacher was charged with first degree assault and 4th degree sexual offense. The case went to trial and he was found not guilty.
Man, who eventually transferred to another school in the same district, says the experience continues to affect how she interacts with people.
“I am that much more nervous around people, that much more cautious about how I act or what I do,” she said. “I have to get out of my own head, because if I was talking to any other woman, I’m like, ‘You can wear what you want, say what you want, and no one is allowed to touch you.’”
While Education Week interviewed more than a half dozen other women for this story who said they had been harassed or assaulted on the job, none would go on the record with their stories or were willing to share enough information that we could independently corroborate. Even in this extraordinary #MeToo era, ordinary women who’ve experienced harassment at work are often reluctant to share their stories publicly, much less report the incidents to managers or other authorities.
It is not uncommon for women to choose to remain silent about sexual harassment and assault that takes place at work or among colleagues, said Linda A. Seabrook, the general counsel for the advocacy group Futures Without Violence. To do otherwise could put their job, career, and even their safety at risk, she said.
Seabrook said it’s both incumbent on—and imperative for—workplaces to make sure victims feel safe to report misconduct, because when sexual harassment goes unchecked, it exacerbates the problem by encouraging the abuse to continue.
“Most harassers are not single victim harassers,” Seabrook said. “Workplaces generally know who those people are. To see that person get promoted, get the best office, move up the chain unfettered and without consequences, it’s just demoralizing to the entire workplace.”
Still, some women in K-12 have come forward recently with charges of harassment.
A lawsuit filed by two teachers this month in New York City alleges that for years an assistant principal demanded sexual favors from multiple teachers and would punish those that did not acquiesce. The school’s principal, the lawsuit contends, promoted the assistant principal over objections from several staff members and was aware of multiple complaints against him but did nothing.
And a complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in May claimed that the superintendent in Fayetteville, Ark., sexually harassed a female employee who did not report the harassment for a long time for fear of retaliation, according to local media reports. The superintendent was fired by the school board this week.
When teachers and school administrators do report problems, the vast majority of the time they do so to their direct supervisor, according to the Education Week Research Center’s survey. Employees were the least likely to report an issue to their union or to a state or federal agency, the survey found.
Is Sexual Harassment Less Common in K-12?
It’s hard to say if sexual harassment and assault happen in K-12 education less often than in other fields. Research on the frequency of sexual misconduct in the general workplace varies greatly.
“Studies range between 25 percent of working women and 90 percent,” said Heather McLaughlin, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University who has researched workplace sexual harassment. “It really comes down to measurements and our understanding of what sexual harassment means.”
Gender, age, and industry all factor into people’s perception of sexual harassment, she said.
But K-12 education professionals certainly think it’s more common in other industries.
Ninety-one percent of those who had worked in a setting outside of education told the Education Week Research Center that they felt sexual harassment and assault happened more frequently in other workplaces than in schools and district offices.
A high percentage also said that they felt confident that they knew what to do if they were the target of sexual harassment or assault, or saw it happening to someone else. Sixty-two percent indicated that they were either “extremely” or “very knowledgeable” about protocol, and an even greater share, 67 percent, said they had received training on preventing or responding to sexual harassment and assault. Again—over half of those respondents rated their training as either “extremely” useful or “very” useful.
Charol Shakeshaft, a professor who has studied teacher misconduct at Virginia Commonwealth University, was struck by those numbers. She pointed to the nearly 60 percent of survey respondents who also said they didn’t report incidences of sexual harassment or assault.
“How useful was the training? If it was so useful, then why didn’t you report [the sexual harassment]?” Shakeshaft said. “Their reports don’t bear out that they’ve internalized the training or the policies.”
She said training that requires participants to practice or act out a scenario where they report someone is most effective. But such training, Shakeshaft added, can only do so much without a corresponding critical look—and overhaul if need be—of workplace culture.
Shakeshaft warned against believing that K-12 education is immune from these issues. Some may falsely assume that the kind of people who want to become educators are less likely to perpetrate such behavior and that can lull school leaders and others into complacency, Shakeshaft said.
“Oftentimes in a school setting we say, ‘We’re not going to be like that.’ But that culture can grow up, and we don’t do enough to stop it,” she said.
And that culture can do long-lasting damage to victims and their careers.
“People who were sexually harassed were much more likely to quit their jobs—forgoing opportunities for advancement there,” said McLaughlin, the researcher at Oklahoma State. “Women in our studies had higher amounts of financial stress, really operating through that job change.”
Many switch industries altogether, according to McLaughlin’s research, and it can take years for women’s income to rebound after leaving a job. That’s in addition to the physical consequences of harassment which can include depression and even post-traumatic stress symptoms.
After the trial, Man, the Maryland teacher, said she felt ostracized by the rest of the teaching staff, which is what pushed her to move to a job in a different school. Although Man feels as though she’s finally found her footing again as a teacher, it’s been a long recovery process over the past five years. One that included a lot of self-doubt and therapy.
“I handle it by asking myself, what would I tell my students to do?” Man said. “I need to live the life I would tell my students to live. But it’s a conversation I have to repeatedly have with myself.”
But, she added, “I don’t think there is a safe place for avoiding sexual harassment and assault.”
In 2018, as women across industries shared their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, Education Week began reporting on the problem in K-12 schools. We asked school or school district employees about their experiences and how they were handled. An online form, now discontinued, appeared on this page. It was a vehicle for users to report their experiences. We want to thank those who did reach out to us. For more about this project, read: Teachers Told Me Their Stories of Sexual Assault and Harassment—and Why They Keep Silent.
Librarians Maya Riser-Kositsky and Holly Peele contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as In K-12, 20 Percent of Staff Say #MeToo