High Schools Clueless about Sex Harassment Rules

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cat calls on the road

CLEVELAND (TEENVOICES)–Uma Singh says plenty of classmates don’t share her view of sex harassment.

“Guys will walk down the hall and hit on girls and be like ‘What a nice butt you have,'” said the sophomore at Charles F. Brush High School in Lyndhurst, Ohio, in a recent phone interview. “Then you’ll complain about it and other girls will be like ‘Why? That’s a compliment.’ Honestly, I don’t really see it that way. I think it’s unwanted.”

Singh belongs to Know Abuse, a youth-led program that travels to high schools all over the greater Cleveland area to perform a play and provide education in order to teach their peers about healthy relationships. So it makes sense that she’s more likely to spot sex harassment where another girl might see a compliment.

But if Title IX were upheld, she and her peers should have less of a vocabulary gap. The 1972 gender-equity statute for education requires schools to have “adequate definitions of sexual harassment (which includes sexual violence) and an explanation as to when such conduct creates a hostile environment.”

“Schools need to have policies and procedures for students and their staff that explain what sexual harassment is, how you report it, who you go to and that retaliation is prohibited,” said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics at the National Women’s Law Center.

Among students interviewed for this story who attend schools in the greater Cleveland area, the majority–six out of nine–did not know their school’s policy on sexual harassment or assault. In some cases, schools did not have specific policies. In others, sexual offenses were included under more general policies.

“I don’t think I’ve ever signed anything about any types of protocols about sexual harassment, honestly,” said Skylar Luke, a senior at Hathaway Brown, a private girls’ school in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

‘Do a Better Job’

Paul Lucas, principal of Orange High School, said administrators at his school do not explain the sexual harassment policy to students, but thought perhaps they should. “I think we could do a better job of having a more direct program.”

Singh’s Charles F. Brush High School uses a standard definition of sexual harassment as any unwanted verbal, physical or nonverbal communication. (Nonverbal communication could include gestures, images, whistling, for example).

Title IX also recommends, but does not require, that schools provide prevention education.

At each of the nine schools where students or administrators were contacted, some form of education was taking place; a unit in health class, assemblies with expert speakers and clubs where issues of sexual harassment and gender norms are discussed. But problems in implementing this kind of prevention education were widespread, according to students and faculty members.

Some programs don’t reach students broadly or deeply enough, Hannah Borison, a senior at Beachwood High School who participates in the Know Abuse program, said in a phone interview. “It’s helpful to have these programs for the freshman [but] I think it would be better if maybe once a year there was an assembly for everyone.”

Some programs are offered to the wrong age group. Sexual harassment programming, for instance, is most common at the middle school level, Alex Leslie, director of prevention and outreach programs at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, said in a phone interview. “There isn’t evidence of an effective program with kids [in high school].”

Often, programming on sex abuse and harassment gets mixed in with other efforts that schools are required to perform.

“Lumping them in with something like bullying for instance; I see that as kind of brushing it under the rug,” said Abby McGinty, co-coordinator of Ranger 360, a federally funded program aimed at preventing and responding to sexual violence at Lakewood City School District, a Cleveland suburb.

Two administrators at different schools–Lucas, the principal of Orange High School and Tammy Strom, communication director at Solon City Schools–said their respective schools have mixed prevention programs on sexual harassment with other topics, including bullying.

Less Sex Harassment Focus

High schools are also prone to focus on the problem of sexual assault but spend less time on sex harassment. “We don’t really look at sexual harassment individually,” said Maya Gaines-Smith, a senior at Beachwood High School. “If it’s an issue we’re really talking about, we need to talk about it by itself.”

Administrators often have difficulty knowing which prevention programs work best and which to select. “Few [high school] programs have been evaluated well enough to be considered evidenced-based,” finds a 2012 review of research on adolescent sexual violence prevention programs by the National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women.

Once a program is chosen, it can be difficult for school officials to ascertain its impact. “How much you actually have an effect, it’s tough to tell,” said Orange High School principal Lucas. “Kids can tell me one thing, but what actually happens, who knows?”

Staff may be also short on preparation, another Title IX requirement.

“Teachers receive a cursory training,” said Robin Hopkins, associate principal at Euclid High School. Her statement is supported by 2008 research done by Elizabeth Meyer, then at Concordia University in Canada. Her research consisted of in-depth interviews with six teachers in a Canadian school district.

At five schools where staff was contacted, administrators used online training programs that provide education on a variety of topics, of which sexual harassment is just one. Some teachers at Lakewood High told Ranger 360 representatives that the training was not thorough.

Despite such limitations, many students praise the prevention programming they have encountered.

Autumn Nalls, who is now a youth advisor board member at the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, saw a big difference in her school after the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center sent a speaker to her old school, John Hay High School, also in Cleveland. “There weren’t too many jokes about rape [after the presentation]. If somebody made a joke, [students] would be like ‘hey stop, that’s not cool.'”

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