School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leading a School Culture Without Sexual Harassment

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 29, 2017 5 min read
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It was just about a year ago in the midst of the 2016 presidential campaign. For better or worse, most Americans watched a video of men having a conversation about women. We heard about body female parts and men kissing and grabbing. We heard one man reveal the privilege he felt he had to do so. What happened next? One of the men, though he said he was embarrassed and ashamed at the lewdness of the comments, lost his job. One of the men, who described the conversation as “locker room talk”, was elected president of the United States. That man’s wife, now FLOTUS, dismissed her husband’s words as “boy talk” saying he had been “egged on” and probably didn’t know a mic was on. Though media waves were hot with the issue and conversations of offensiveness abounded, both men and women ignored it in the end. Both men have daughters. That didn’t make a difference in how someone else’s daughters get treated. Even some women were willing to condemn, no, not the perpetrators but the women who were victims of a male controlled system where sexual boundaries were vague and career advancement was too often accompanied by expectations of favors. But, maybe after a year, we can be a touch more optimistic. Maybe that video did crack open the door and begin to lift the shroud around the unspeakable.

Raising one’s voice in a way that jeopardizes the reputation of another, especially if the other is powerful and, yes, respectable in his or her community, is rugged terrain to transverse. It is even worse if that voice is a solo one and the path of revealing secrets is alienating and career impacting. Remember Anita Hill? But, even if a dozen voices get raised it doesn’t mean the path is easy. How many of the dozens of women who accused Bill Cosby had their own reputations called into question or were spurned with questions about settlements? There was the conservative icon Bill O’Reilly who purportedly offered millions to accusers before he was fired. Then, Weinstein came along with fifty plus women bold enough to take the risk of revealing stories from secrets long held. The man was fired and discredited, followed by more from fields other than Hollywood. Women speaking out and supporting one another. Truth being told has an undiminishable volume over time. Now, the terrain itself may be shifting.


Educators need to know about #MeToo for multiple reasons. The barrier of silence is being broken. Vulnerability and shame which protected offenders for so long are losing power over victims. Among our staff and our student body are women and men, girls and boys who are victims. We have an obligation to teach what sexual harassment is and how to deal with it. There may be among us, as leaders, those who have experiences similar to the ones begin told in other fields. If so, we need to be forthcoming and allow #MeToo to become personal if needed. We aspire to a safe environment and one that protects children and produces adults who are college and career ready in this regard as well. Leaders need to create an environment in which all believe someone will listen to them.

We need to equalize the power structure so students don’t feel powerless. How? We need to insist on an environment where respect is never compromised. That is not a simple task. Creating and maintaining a school culture that allows for all to feel safe is a primary responsibility for the leader. Yet, often management tasks and urgent matters can pull the attention of the leader away from the heart of the matter. While focusing on curriculum, teaching, learning, and other matters, attention to the nature of the school culture can easily slip away. This is not an additional task for leaders it is a central one that is important in every aspect of school leadership and most importantly, in every aspect of the work of college and career preparedness.

Listening is essential. Beginning with conversations among the adults, listening carefully has to be valued. Listening is a skill that must be learned. To be effective, listening requires an open mind and open heart, no filter, no judgment. In some places, more conversations may be needed than in others. Some may require training in skilled listening. The environment, the school culture, can only perceived as safe if one can feel listened to. We can never know every child’s life but we can acknowledge that fact and let them tell us what it looks like to be in their shoes. The slippery slide from sexual harassment into sexual abuse must not be tolerated in public or private schools.

Title IX made sexual harassment a topic in schools decades ago. Training and a coordinator were required. But, a recent AAUW survey found that nearly half of students surveyed in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment within the past school year--nearly 87% of those students reported that the harassment had a negative impact on them. If we haven’t taught and demonstrated to our students that this is not acceptable, why wouldn’t they struggle to know how to deal with it in the workplace?

School Culture and a Moral Compass

We can be grateful the current stories are not coming from education but we cannot be smug or righteous. While education, thankfully is not a field where sexual harassment is a pervasive part of our culture, we cannot pretend it isn’t within us also. Most of us who have been around a while know the teacher, or principal or superintendent or coach who crossed the line in our district or the one next door. Some of us know the gratitude of being able to say “it’s a personnel issue and therefore confidential”. Some of us know about lawsuits settled in Board Meeting executive sessions with non-disclosure statements attached. No, we are not immune in our profession. And, there is a higher reason for us to be the best....we teach children about these issues and prepare them for a world we hope they will improve. We are their role models and help shape the moral compass which will guide them through life.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.