(WOMENSENEWS)–Jessie Huse-Murillo, a 17-year-old high school student in Damascus, Md., was stopped by a coach in the hallway while she was running an errand for another teacher. She didn’t have a hall pass but she talked her way out of detention. Although the coach let her transgression slide, he could not refrain from making a comment about her to another student passing by: "Feisty as hell, but boy does she have a great rack."
Huse-Murillo, a junior at the time, said that the next day, the other student confided that the coach had made similar comments to other female teens at the school. She urged Huse-Murillo to report the incident and she did.
Huse-Murillo said her school’s principal, guidance counselors and other administrators scheduled mediation meetings between her, her parents and the teacher that were so awkward and confrontational that she felt punished for reporting the behavior. When she expressed dissatisfaction with the process, the school said it was the sole option, or she could simply cover herself up.
"The school tried to put a wrap over it and pretend it wasn’t going on. That’s part of why I didn’t pursue it further," Huse-Murillo recalled. But the ordeal undermined her view of school. "I was a straight-A student, but I was scared to death to go to school every day," she said.
Alex Krensky tells another type of high-school harassment story.
When Krensky was a 14-year-old freshman in Sutton, Mass., a male admirer in the same grade bombarded her with requests for dates and often tried to touch her. "He always tried to tickle me," she said, "and this one time in gym class, I was doing a headstand, and my shirt rode up a little, and he randomly touched my bare stomach."
Krensky didn’t complain to her school administration partly because she didn’t know how to classify her harasser’s actions. "It was a weird situation," she said, "because I think he thought he was flirting in some way."
Local News Story
In the spring of 2006, another form of sexual harassment turned local press attention to Pittsburgh’s Mt. Lebanon High School, where faculty and parents discovered that several male students at the school had compiled a list titled "Top 25 of 2006," ranking female students by their breast size, proficiency at performing oral sex, weight and overall desirability. The list had been widely circulated among students via e-mail and in paper copies at the school.
Administrators scrambled to stop the list from wider circulation while the local press, including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, covered the story. Female students on the list told reporters they felt violated in interviews; some parents described the list as "written rape."
The Top 25 list shook the town, but it didn’t make national news. That may be because sexual harassment in U.S. high schools is commonplace, if not accepted.
In the most recent comprehensive study of sexual harassment in high schools, the Harris Interactive study in 2001 of 2,064 public school students in eighth through 11th grades found that 83 percent of females and 79 percent of males reported having been sexually harassed, defined as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with life."
These rates were up from those reported in a similar study from 1993 conducted by the Washington-based American Association of University Women; 56 percent of females reported harassment versus 49 percent of males. A 2006 study of sexual harassment on college campuses conducted by the association found that over two-thirds of college students had been harassed, and that the majority of harassers–a group nearly equally comprised of men and women–found their activities "funny."
School Response Questioned
Sexual harassment can interfere with academic performance and emotional and physical well-being, according to the U.S. Department of Education, but schools aren’t always addressing it effectively, said Dr. Nan Stein, a senior research scientist on teen sexuality and sexual harassment at the Wellesley College Centers for Women in Wellesley, Mass.
"Increased sexual harassment could be part of ‘kid culture,’" said Stein. "But also, schools have been very active about making public their policies on sexual harassment, so students know that they can report harassment. However, whether the schools actually do anything about it is a completely different story."
Stein recommends that schools provide training programs for students and faculty to deal with specific situations. She also recommends a compassionate response to perpetrators, rather than detentions or suspensions. "Discussion groups with a trained specialist between peers and adults could really help teens get in touch with the root of the problem and why they do this."
According to the Post-Gazette, many people felt the school administration of Mt. Lebanon High School acted sluggishly in response to the "Top 25" list, and some school board members even publicly called for the resignation of the principal and superintendent because of it. According to the 2001 study by the American Association of University Women, 70 percent of high schools have policies against sexual harassment.
Feeling the Burden of Punishment
Jennifer Baumgardner, whose most recent book from 2004, "Grassroots: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism," focused on organizing for women’s issues, personally understands why girls don’t pursue claims. In high school she had a run-in with an adult staff member who, while not overtly harassing her, made inappropriate remarks. At a meeting with administrators and her parents, Baumgardner recalls feeling the burden of whatever punishment they might dole out on the teacher on her own shoulders. "I remember thinking, ‘I don’t want him to lose his job because of me,’" she said.
Baumgardner says an increasingly sexualized culture can make girls and female teens feel bewildered about what is going on. "Some girls might think, ‘Wait, is this even harassment?’"
Lynn Hecht Schafran, senior vice president and director of the National Judicial Education Program with Legal Momentum, a New York-based public policy firm that advocates for the rights of women and girls, agrees.
"On the radio, there is song after song referring to women as ‘bitches’ and ‘whores’ and magazine covers constantly degrade women," she said. "The ubiquity of these examples definitely takes its toll, as our society makes little or no distinction between what’s on the newsstand and what you see every day with how people regard women."
Liz Funk is a freelance writer and college student. Visit the feminist blog she writes for the Albany Times Union at http://blogs.timesunion.com/lizfunk