Gender and Schooling

Ending bullying and harassment, and promoting sexual diversity in schools.

‘Sexting’ and Suicide

How can we help protect teens from new forms of ‘sextual’ harassment?

teen textA study was just released yesterday that indicates the practice of ‘sexting' (sending sexually suggestive text messages and photos) is on the rise among U.S. teens. One researcher was quoted as explaining this phenomenon as follows, "These images are shared as a part of or instead of sexual activity, or as a way of starting or maintaining a relationship with a significant other, and they are also passed along to friends for their entertainment value, as a joke or for fun." This "fun" is actually sexual harassment and can have tragic consequences. This year two cases of suicide have been attributed to sexts gone viral. What can we do to help educate teens about safe texts?

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is nonprofit research group, who surveyed 800-teens, and reported that 15% of cell-owning teens (ages 12 to 17) had "received nude or nearly nude photos by phone. 4% of the teens said they had sent out sexually explicit photos or videos of themselves." (cnn.com) Another poll reported that 1/3 of college students engage in this activity (wcbstv.com). Although many teens and young adults may be blasé about sexting, other acknowledge that it can be very dangerous and in addition to creating "drama" it has also been deadly. The case of Jessica Logan is tragic, but instructive.

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LoganMs. Logan and some friends took nude photos of themselves while on spring break in 2008 and she chose to send hers to her boyfriend at the time. He promptly forwarded the photo, and it spread throughout her school. This led to frequent and persistent sexual harassment from her peers and she started skipping school. She did manage to graduate in the face of this social humiliation, but the scars ran deep. A month after graduation, after attending a visitation for a friend who had committed suicide, Jessica Logan hanged herself in her room. Her parents are now suing her school for not taking action against the students responsible for the harassment.(Cincinnati.com)

Whitsell In a separate case, a 13 year old, Hope Whitsell, spontaneously sent some ‘racy' photos to get the attention of her crush. Apparently, a ‘romantic rival' found the boy's phone unattended and forwarded the photos on to classmates and friends. Whitsell was suspended for the photo and when she returned to school was subjected to severe and pervasive sexual harassment. A school counsellor noticed that Hope was harming herself due to some marks on her legs and had her sign a ‘no-harm' contract. Ironically, she hung herself the next day. (inquistr.com)

I share these tragic stories to inform you of the deadly impacts of sexual harassment on teens. Every emotion they feel is so intense and there often seems as if there will be no end to the pain and the drama. Adults need to take these situations seriously and educators need to intervene more proactively in order to prevent these tragedies from happening. In my book, Gender, bullying, and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools, I write about the legal definitions of various forms of gendered harassment, including sexual harassment, and schools' responsibilities in such situations. In cases of sexual harassment such as these, there are four main criteria that must be met under the application of Title IX:

  1. School officials must have actual knowledge of the harassment
  2. School officials demonstrate deliberate indifference to harassment or take actions that are clearly unreasonable
  3. School officials have substantial control over both the harasser and the context in which the known harassment occurs
  4. The harassment is severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim(s) of access to the educational opportunities of benefits provided by the school. (Davis v. Monroe, 1999)

These principles emerged from the first peer-to-peer sexual harassment case, Davis v. Monroe, decided by the Supreme Court in 1999. In this case, a male 5th grade classmate of LaShonda Davis tried to touch her breasts and told her "I want to get in bed with you" and "I want to feel your boobs." She reported this to her mother and teacher but the school didn't do anything to support LaShonda or punish the perpetrator. This harassment continued: verbal taunts, leers in class, and unwanted behaviors. One time he put a door stop in his pants and walked up to her thrusting his crotch. Another time he rubbed his body up against LaShonda in the school hallway. LaShonda reported each of these incidents to her teachers but still had to sit next to this student in class and nothing was done to get the harassment to stop. The incidents stopped six months later when her parents decided to charge him with sexual battery. He pled guilty to this charge. During this time LaShonda's previously high grades had dropped, and her father discovered that she had written a suicide note (Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 1999).

These events led to a landmark Supreme Court decision that applied Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments to cases of student-on-student sexual harassment. Although Title IX is most widely known for its impact in reducing disparities between men and women in athletics participation at the collegiate level, it was written to protect individuals from being denied educational benefits on the basis of sex (Roth, 1994, p. 472). It was first successfully applied in the context of a sexual harassment claim in the case of Franklin v. Gwinett County Public Schools (1992). This Supreme Court decision set the precedent for using Title IX to defend students from harassment based on sex, but in this case the defendant was a school board employee (Roth, 1994).

These legal guidelines provide a set of minimal basic standards for schools to follow when faced with severe cases of sexual harassment - whether it is on cell-phones, passed notes, or face-to-face, the impacts are the same. Schools can't look the other way and pretend that they don't have a role to play. Parents need to have open conversations with their children about sexuality, relationships, and decision making. These are the basics of good parenting. Teachers and other school personnel also need to tune in to warning signs and work with counselors, social workers, family members, and other community supports to provide support and education to students. MTV has also recently launched an education campaign ‘A Thin Line' to help educate their audience and reduce forms of digital abuse. On Valentine's Day 2010, they are planning to air a show on sexting called "True Life: I Have Digital Drama." The related website: http://www.athinline.org/ is very teen-friendly and a helpful educational resource for parents and educators to use in their efforts to reduce the harmful impacts of all forms of gendered harassment, particularly as it spreads in cyberspace. Some other great resources online include websites and blogs such as:

As with all dangers of the world, we can't wrap our kids in bubble wrap and completely protect them from harm. What we can do is create an environment where they feel safe and supported asking questions and confiding in trusted adults when they are going through something difficult. As family members, our job is to provide them guidance, support, and information and to help them learn from their mistakes. As educators, our job is to report harassment when we see it, know and enforce relevant laws and policies, as well as locate and use the social and educational resources available to us to create safer, harassment-free learning environments for all youth.

Elizabeth Meyer, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California.

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