Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sexual Harassment

In last Sunday's Washington Post an article ran that discussed just how widespread sexual harassment has become in middle and high schools in the United States.  In 2010-2011:
  • 48% of 7th through 12th graders experienced sexual harassment either in person or through electronic media
  • 56% of girls and 40% of boys had gone through at least one experience of being sexually harassed
  • Half of these students did nothing about the harassment, and only 9% reported the incidents to school officials (source: David Crary at www.washingtonpost.com)
Sexual harassment has grown from the days when it was simply inappropriate and suggestive comments and notes in the hallways.  Now, through modern electronic media, we find that it is pictures sent from cell-phone to cell-phone to a social-media website where all the world may view it.  It can be relentless explicit e-mails or comments posted to Formspring, an anonymous social-networking website.  Thus, in the past these pictures and comments, while certainly inappropriate and upsetting, would have probably been contained to a small number of individuals.  Now, we find that in a matter of minutes these hurtful and offensive missives can be seen by anyone in cyberspace.  The impact on a student can be quite heavy.  In the article, students who are sexually harassed report that the harassment
"...made them feel sick to the stomach, affected their study habits, or fueled reluctance to go to school at all." (source:  David Crary at www.washingtonpost.com)
 Thus, sexual harassment can have a strong impact on the academic success of our students.

It is important to note that unlike bullying (which has some protections on a state-by-state basis), sexual harassment is against federal law and is part of Title IX.  In fact, many schools and school systems have mandated counseling lessons on sexual harassment that are often combined with bullying prevention.  The Department of Education defines sexual harassment and discusses proper procedures and interventions if a case comes up on their Office of Civil Rights website. Sexual harassment is defined there as
"...conduct that is sexual in nature, is unwelcome, and denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program." (Source:  www2.ed.gov)
Please note that gay and lesbian students are also protected under Title IX if they are being sexually harassed, but it does not cover discrimination based on sexual orientation.  As school counselors, there are several things that we can do in the areas of prevention and intervention to assist our students with this issue:
  • Prevention:  We can help to educate all students about what sexual harassment is, as well as educate them on what to do if they feel they are being sexually harassed by adults or peers in the building, in addition to the consequences of participating in harassing behaviors.  There are many different lessons that are available online, such as here and here, so that you do not have to re-invent the wheel.  Chances are also high that your school district or school have plans available as a resource.  The Equal Rights Advocates website has a great set of strategies for those who feel they are being harassed (saying no, reporting the behavior, documenting the behavior, not blaming themselves) as well as other pertinent information that you may find helpful as you are planning a prevention program.
  • Intervention:  Interventions can vary widely, depending on the situation.  We may at times simply be a link between the student and school or school-system administration.  We may be providing counseling support, both for the victim of the harassment as well as the student doing the harassing.  For those who are being victimized, you or another staff member may consider running an assertiveness or self-esteem group.  Likewise, for students who are sexually harassing other students, a small psycho-educational group that focuses on defining harassment, the consequences of the harassment, as well as the impact their behavior has on others may be necessary depending on the scope and scale of the problem within your building.  As always, one of our primary purposes is to serve as a student advocate and support them through these difficult situations.
There are several ethical considerations that may come into play with the issue of sexual harassment in the schools.  School counselors should not be the staff members who are themselves investigating claims of sexual harassment, and we walk a fine line between being supportive of our students without being judgmental of the others involved.  Consider the following:
  • What are your own biases and experiences with regards to sexual harassment?  If you have yourself been a victim of sexual harassment in the past, how does this effect your work with students on your case-load who may be accused of harassing others?  It is important to notice your personal reactions if a student comes to you who feels he/she is being harassed, as well as your reaction if you are asked to work with a student who may be harassing others.
  • If the person being accused of sexual harassment is another staff member, how will you walk the line of being a student advocate as well as a collegial staff member?  Your primary responsibility is to your student, but you will have to consider how to maintain a working relationship with this other staff member as they may teach other students on your case-load.  Confidentiality about the situation is an absolute must within your building and amongst your colleagues.  It is important to note again that it is not your role to investigate a claim of harassment or to pass judgement--there are other entities within your building or system who will manage that.
  • What will you do if both the accuser and the alleged harasser are on your case-load?  Is it a conflict of interest, especially if the claim is fairly serious?  Always check your own personal feelings about the situation as well as discuss with a colleague or counseling superior whether it is in the best interests of both students for you to work with them.
I would also refer to the ethical decision making model found at the end of the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors.  It is important that you consult, consult, consult if you feel at all that your work with any of the parties involved may be compromised.

For further information on legal and ethical considerations, as well as prevention programs and interventions, check out Sexual Harassment and Student Services Personnel, available in the ASCA bookstore.

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