July 10, 2014

Teens Say School Sex Harassment Goes Unpunished

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)– High school sophomore Marilyn Hernandez knows all to well how uncomfortable it is to be pursued and harassed at school.

One boy used to slip her notes during class, asking her out, saying that he loved her and only wanted to be with her. “I felt creeped out. I felt gross,” said Hernandez, who lives in Suffolk County, N.Y.

As his notes became more persistent she became more nervous. “I wanted to get him off my back,” she said. “I always thought ‘What if he comes up and corners me?’ I needed to avoid him.”

In May, after a gunman in California released a Youtube video announcing his hatred for female peers who made him feel sexually rejected, the subject of young women’s vulnerability came to the national surface, with many Twitter users recounting instances of misogyny in their own lives via the hashtag #YesAllWomen.

In the background, the American Association of University Women had already documented the problem of harassment for teens. Fifty six percent of middle- and high-school female teens were sexual harassed during the previous year, found a 2011 report by the Washington-based group. In an earlier study it found that 83 percent of female teens faced harassment throughout their teen years at school and only 9 percent of young women reported harassment to school faculty.

More than half of students surveyed in the American Association of University Women’s 2011 report want a system put in place where they can report sexual harassment incidents anonymously, the study also found.

Classrooms and Hallways

Adult supervision doesn’t seem to make a big difference. A 2014 report by the American Educational Research Association found that classrooms and hallways are the most common places for students to be sexually harassed.

Lauren Rzadko, from Sterling Heights, Mich., believes that high school authorities do not think that sexual harassment is a serious problem. “You get one speech and everybody ignores it and pretends like it doesn’t happen, like harassment isn’t there,” said the 17-year-old in a phone interview.

The catcalling and unwanted comments caused Justine Narcisse, 18, to become self-conscious about her body. “I wake up every morning wishing I didn’t have a nice figure. I wish I didn’t have my butt, I wish I didn’t have my boobs,” said Narcisse, a high school senior at Copiague Walter G. O’Connell High School in New York.

Most students are afraid to report sexual harassment because they fear that they will experience further bullying, said Narcisse in a phone interview. “Most people think their life is going to be in danger. People that get harassed by kids in school think that if they say something they’re going to get bullied or beat up.”

Even when students do report sexual harassment, faculty members may not take the incidents seriously enough. Narcisse said that when she did tell her teacher about being harassed, the teacher merely told the boy not to repeat that behavior.

Katy Ma, a 17-year-old high school student in Doylestown, Penn., recalls being sexually harassed by boys in middle school. “This guy would just slap my butt every time in the hallway. We weren’t friends or anything and he just thought he could do that to every girl he saw,” she said in a phone interview.

Ma said she was shocked the first time she was touched by a male peer. “It was very strange to be sexualized in that way,” said the activist with SPARK, a self-described movement to mobilize against the dangerous sexualization of female bodies.

Some schools are holding assemblies about preventing sexual harassment. Some take the controversial measure of instituting dress codes or changing them, which Ma said is the wrong move. “I think the focus has to shift to not blaming girls for wearing what they want to wear [and] telling boys that they can’t treat girls in certain ways,” said Ma.

Sixteen-year-old Sully Brito from Copiague, N.Y. recalled how a boy tried to pull her skirt up when she was in the sixth grade. “I wore a skirt to school and a guy came up to me and tried to pull up my skirt. I didn’t even know who he was.” She said the student was never punished. “To the teacher it didn’t matter. It was irrelevant.”


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