Sex Harassment and Teens: Title IX Moving Into High Schools

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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)—Soon after having an honest conversation about sex with a male friend of hers last year, she started hearing him whispering “dirty slut” or “I know you want it” to her in math class.

This year another male friend repeatedly tried to touch her armpit hair and asked if her boyfriend licked it.

The 17-year-old New York City student said she felt very uncomfortable during these encounters but didn’t tell her teachers because she wasn’t sure if it was a big deal and she was worried that it would ruin her friendships. While she is a leader of her school’s “women’s empowerment” class, she asked not to be named to protect her online privacy.

Situations like this are what Know Your IX, based in Washington, D.C., and New York City, is trying to address by taking its advocacy and awareness campaign into high schools.

Launched in 2013 to publicize gender-based discrimination law on college campuses, the organization is now seeking to make sure teens know about the law, which in addition to protecting gender equity in team sports opportunities also guarantees them a learning environment safe from assault and harassment.

As instances of campus rape at high schools and in college dominate the headlines, the documentary “The Hunting Ground” and artists such as Lady Gaga and Kesha are hoping to de-stigmatize the issue.

But student advocates, not celebrities or media projects, are best positioned to address the issue, says Zoe Ridolfi-Starr, deputy director of the Know Your IX Campaign.

Teens are also among those most likely to be victimized. Data from the Department of Justice show that females ages 15 to 18 had a rate of rape and sexual assault more than double that of females of all other ages, from 2005-2014.

Coming Forward

The core of the KYIX campaign focuses on training victims of school-based sexual harassment to “use their own experiences to encourage other survivors to come forward,” says Ridolfi-Starr, who spoke in a recent phone interview.

To date, she says, the campaign has reached students in 200 U.S. schools.

KYIX holds a two-day course where selected student advocates are taught to understand and change policies surrounding issues of on campus rape and harassment. Over 120 student activists have been trained at these sessions as well at other workshops and online. The goal is for participants to go back to their high schools and spread the word and enact campus-wide policy changes.

At Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Massachusetts, students held a walk out last month to protest what they saw as a widespread culture of sexual harassment and assault created by students and teachers.

Protest leaders received support from the nonprofit advocacy organization End Rape on Campus. This is the kind of action that KYIX supports and encourages, though they weren’t involved with the Cambridge protest.

Last April Kimberly De La Cruz’s male friend grabbed her breasts in science class but she didn’t tell any authority figures. “I hate being the center of attention and I just didn’t want to start any trouble,” she said in an email interview.

De La Cruz no longer speaks to the boy. But had she known his behavior could have been considered as creating a “hostile school environment” under Title IX, she said she would have emailed a teacher or a guidance counselor. “I wouldn’t want to physically talk to someone, the pity would kill me,” she said.

Lack of Notifications

Under federal law, schools are required to ensure that victims of gender-based discrimination can “continue to learn,” says Ridolfi-Starr. A student’s attacker or abuser must be removed from class so that the victim no longer feels threatened.

However, school officials need to be notified when a violation occurs and in many cases they are not.

“I’ve fortunately never received a Title IX complaint like that, but I would have to follow the code of the Department of Education,” says Dimitri Saliani, principal of Eleanor Roosevelt High School, in New York City.

He is referring to the Department of Education’s discipline code, which recommends in-school counseling and punishes a student with suspension.

Saliani was surprised to hear from a reporter who attends his school that there were instances of sexual harassment in his classrooms. He said “assault on a college campus is different than in a high school because of the reality of residential living on a college campus rather than that of a high school and the obvious different living environment that exists on a college campus.”

Eleanor Roosevelt High School offers an advisory lesson to make students more aware of their rights and to understand healthy teen relationships, says Alison Cohen, a school guidance counselor.  This lesson is mandated by the New York City Department of Education for all high school students.

But students like Cara Levine, a leader of the school’s gender sexuality alliance, stress the need for the same student advocacy that KYIX promotes.

Madison Hernandez, 16, a student in New York City, describes a stigma of “fear and shame” around discussions of sexual assault and harassment and says it’s important that more people know about these attacks.

When asked if she would approach the school administration if she were assaulted, she said at this point she would not. “It’s a lot” she said, “and I just don’t think I could go through that.”

  • Esther Warkov

    Sammy, you may want to learn about Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org), a nonprofit created specifically to address sexual harassment and gender based discrimination in K-12 schools. Their education program, funded by the AAUW, will be seeking teen “ambassadors” to bring this to schools and communities. There are several teens on their advisory board and practical resources on the website, videos, articles, and ways to get involved.

    • Sammy Norrito

      Thanks for letting me know! I’ll take a look at the organization; that kind of work and outreach is so important! Maybe I can speak to them for future articles.

      • Esther Warkov

        Please feel free to contact the Executive Director through info@stopsexualassaultinschools.org I’m involved with the organization and can put you in touch with other teens and young adults who are joining us.

  • Sheila Sherman

    How can we further criminalize children, men and boys!

    If only they were Islamic refugees, this behavior would suddenly be tolerable!