Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Schools Must Heal Survivors of Sexual Assault, Not Retraumatize Them

Schools must improve how they acknowledge and address sexual violence against their students
By Amy Leipziger — March 15, 2022 4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a person's Hand covering another person's mouth to silence them.
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In Ohio, students recently held a protest after a school counselor dismissed allegations of assault with the line, “Boys have hormones.” In Florida, students demonstrated during a school board meeting to challenge their district’s failure to respond to sexual harassment, with one student reporting that school officials told her the way she dressed was the reason she experienced sexual harassment. In Texas, students protested with signs that read, “Silence is violence” and “Enough is enough!” in response to their school’s inaction after a student reported being raped. The list goes on.

I represent students in New York City schools, where, like schools in many large districts around the country, rates of sexual assault and harassment have steadily climbed in the last few years. During the 2016-17 school year, N.Y.C. schools reported over 2,600 sexual assaults, or 14.4 per day. High incidents continued through the 2019-20 school year, with 1,425 sexual assaults during the first six months of the year before in-person learning was shut down—an alarming rate that likely would have continued the rest of the year.

Students—female, male, nonbinary, and transgender—are clearly tired of their schools’ lack of response to reports of sexual harassment and assault, including inappropriate touching, off-color remarks, and outright assault and rape as their perpetrators walk away unscathed and liable to harm others. A 16-year-old client who was sexually assaulted by a classmate in her school explained why she was afraid to speak up: “No one will believe me,” and “They won’t do anything about it anyway.”

Nationally, based on reports from the past few years, 1 in 5 girls ages 14-18 had been kissed or touched without their consent; 58 percent of LGBTQ+ youth ages 13-21 were sexually harassed; and children with disabilities were 2.9 times more likely than their peers to be sexually assaulted.

Shockingly, schools have been slow to act, if they’ve done anything at all. Data released by the U.S. Department of Education in 2020 show that reports of sexual violence at schools increased by 50 percent between the 2015-16 and 2017-18 school years, from about 9,600 to almost 15,000. Experts said those numbers are likely an undercount of sexual violence actually experienced in schools. They also represent increased awareness around sexual violence and students emboldened to speak up in recent years.

Even with increased reporting, we know that schools are still knowingly refusing to protect students after they report sexual violence, a violation of federal law (Title IX, which will mark its 50th anniversary in June). This refusal to act retraumatizes and humiliates survivors who, at the same time, are also being denied the care and support they need to heal and learn. Time and again, my clients have told me that school staff dismissed their reports and claims of such troubling behavior with phrases like, “He likes you,” “Boys are just being boys,” “Don’t be so sensitive,” or “It’s only playful teasing.”

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When school officials respond with that kind of indifference, they send the message that sexual harassment and assault aren’t that big of a deal, make survivors question their self-worth, foster ambiguity about what happened to the victims, and shape how administrators and authority figures respond to reported assaults—perpetuating the trauma for the student who experienced the initial act of violence.

Survivors of sexual violence are left to not only suffer the harm of the assault but also the schools’ failure to address or prevent it. As one former student said, “I know it’s not my fault, but it’s so hard to unlearn the damage that’s inflicted. We were all children … these were adults.”

But it’s not too late for schools to correct course and take steps to finally provide students with the care and support they need.

At a minimum, schools need to believe survivors when they find the courage to speak up. And they must act swiftly to hold perpetrators accountable and provide emotional, academic, and trauma-informed support to survivors.

Secondly, schools must start mandating training for school employees to educate them on how to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual violence. One option might be to model staff training with something akin to comprehensive sex education, rooted in a curriculum that is thoughtful and deliberate, inclusive to the idea of gender equality, consent, power dynamics, and healthy relationships.

Schools must also create a transparent and effective process for filing Title IX complaints and ensure some measure of accountability in conducting a thorough investigation. They must also educate students and their families about their rights under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Schools can replicate the work of groups like Know Your IX, which provides information to student survivors about their legal rights and resources and tools for accessing support. Or groups like Girls for Gender Equity, which empowers young women of color by organizing around gender-based violence.

Students are tired of waiting. The time is now for schools to embrace their moral and legal responsibilities, stop normalizing sexual violence, and start protecting and supporting young survivors so they can heal and continue to learn.

A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2022 edition of Education Week as Schools Must Heal—Not Retraumatize—Survivors of Sexual Assault

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