School Climate & Safety

Teachers Told Me Their Stories of Sexual Assault and Harassment—and Why They Keep Silent

By Arianna Prothero — October 03, 2018 6 min read
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The hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh have become the most raucous showdown of the #MeToo era in part because of the high political stakes, but also because for many people it’s become acutely personal.

As the fallout reverberates through the news and social media, people see their daughters, their sons, their friends, and themselves. We each carry with us someone for whom this is not the hypothetical topic of a pundit brawl, but a dark reality.

For me, I can’t stop thinking about one teacher.

In part, because of the nature of the abuse she endured at the school she worked in, but also because of how badly she wanted to share her story.

As any journalist will tell you, there is friction between a source’s natural desire to protect themselves and their loved ones, and the ethical demands of our profession to corroborate and verify.

The process is invasive.

Every news organization handles this differently. But it generally includes background checks, reporters asking for any corroborating evidence—which often means digging through old emails and text messages—and asking a barrage of questions about the tiniest details of a time our sources would rather forget. We call friends and associates (some of whom our source may not have spoken to in years), we call employers, and, perhaps hardest of all, we call the alleged perpetrator to get their side of the story.

Even if we do not use our sources’ full names in a story, there will be people in their workplaces who know they came forward, including the person they are accusing of sexual harassment, and that carries the risk of retaliation.

As I wrote for a story in June, even in this extraordinary #MeToo era, ordinary women who’ve experienced harassment or assault at work are often reluctant to share their stories publicly.

To give educators a confidential outlet for telling their stories, Education Week created an online form where people could submit their experiences. They didn’t have to share their names and contact information, but many of them did. We read credible stories of harassment and assault by fellow teachers, principals, and superintendents. Some were recent; others happened years ago. A few who submitted their stories were men.

Many of the teachers I spoke to in follow-up interviews, as well as those who talked with some of my Education Week reporter colleagues, cited fear of retaliation for why they didn’t want their stories to go any further, much less to be published.

After being coached my entire career to give detail, I have to remain maddeningly vague here about teachers who shared intimate details about the most traumatic event of their lives, as well as some incredible stories of personal triumph.

While I can’t tell you their names or their stories, I want to share some of the particular challenges that educators face when it comes to reporting sexual harassment and misconduct.

First, though, it’s important to dispel any myth that the female-dominated field of K-12 education is immune from sexual harassment. There are unique features of the K-12 education profession that may make teachers even more susceptible to abuse.

In pink-collar jobs like teaching and nursing, men tend to hold higher-paying and higher-powered positions, a phenomenon called vertical sex segregation, according to a recent report by New America.

Power imbalances between teachers and their superiors, especially for new educators who are not tenured, make them particularly vulnerable. And harassment and other forms of misconduct aren’t just limited to bosses, it can come from other people with power over teachers, such as parents, the New America report says. Teachers can also be harassed or assaulted by fellow teachers and find those situations just as difficult to report.

And it’s a not a well understood issue, as most research and media attention focuses on teachers who sexually harass or abuse students.

However, an Education Week Research Center survey conducted earlier this year gives us a rare look into this issue. One in four women educators reported being sexually harassed or assaulted at work.

Forty percent of teachers and administrators of both genders reported having either witnessed or been the victims of sexual assault or harassment, and 60 percent of those respondents said they did not report what they saw or experienced.

Even being in a highly unionized profession may not be helpful for teachers accusing a peer of sexual harassment. In the survey, when educators were asked who they told about their complaints of misconduct, union representatives were among the least likely to hear such reports.

At the same time, a solid majority of educators said that they were either “extremely” or “very knowledgeable” about reporting protocol and that they had received quality training on how to prevent or respond to sexual harassment and assault.

So, what’s stopping educators from reporting sexual harassment?

The reasons vary. But the top three that educators selected on our survey were: they didn’t think the incident was serious enough to report, they did not think anything would be done, and they feared negative workplace consequences or retaliation.

For many of the women we spoke with personally, the same fear of retaliation that held them back from reporting sexual harassment in the first place also kept them from allowing us to publish their stories. They were confident they would lose their jobs.

While these fears are certainly not unique to teachers, it can be especially hard for teachers to escape their school communities. In a smaller city or town, a school can be fused with the community in a way that makes it difficult for a teacher to get away from their abuser. They might see them at football games.

Taking a job in another state can mean giving up hard-earned pensions and tenure. In many cases teachers have to get re-licensed in their new state. These factors can keep teachers locked in jobs where they are continually seeing their abuser.

Even for teachers who have taken jobs out of state, there are ways for their abusers to wreak havoc in their life from afar.

And that teacher who I haven’t been able to stop thinking about throughout the Kavanaugh debacle?

As I listened to the harrowing details of her story—which I’m not at liberty to disclose—I felt a sense of helplessness. After many conversations, we had reached an impasse. She was afraid to go public and I could not guarantee that she would not regret coming forward. I felt guilty for asking her to share so much—and reliving that pain—and not being able to give her the closure she deserves.

As a news organization, Education Week is still trying to understand the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the K-12 workplace. While we do have some idea of the scale from our survey, that is only one measure. We continue to speak with educators. And we recognize the stakes are high for them and that most will ultimately decide not to go on the record.

But what has struck me most in my reporting, and what I found the most heartbreaking, was how desperately some teachers we spoke with wanted to share their stories because they wanted to make their workplaces safer and their professions better. But they weren’t convinced that their small stand would ultimately make a difference. And in weighing that against the risk to their livelihoods, they decided to remain silent.

I can’t tell you their names or their stories. All I can tell you is that they exist, and they are surviving.

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.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2018 edition of Education Week as Why Teachers Stay Silent About Sexual Assault

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