The trending hashtag #metoo has encouraged many women (including transwomen) to share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault this week in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. What does this have to do with K-12 schools? Unfortunately, schools are incubators for all the values and belief systems that allow cultures of sexual harassment to exist. I remember being in 7th grade and having an 8th grade boy pull my shirt flat against my chest and comment, “don’t worry, they’ll grow.” I also remember being a cheerleader at age 12 and 13 and hating the kind of attention I got from some of the boys and male teachers on days I had to wear my uniform to school. So how can we work to change these cultures? What can parents and educators do? What are age appropriate ways to talk about this with our kids and students?
First, we have to help our children recognize sexism and its effects everywhere we see it. One simple approach is to talk with our kids and students about gender stereotypes and to question them when we see them happening. One study found that when elementary school teachers used gender segregation in their classrooms (referring to their students as girls and boys or commenting that the “girls are listening well today,” etc.) those children had more traditional notions of gender than did students in a class whose teachers used inclusive terms such as
"students" or "children." This led students in the “boys and girls” class to be more likely to agree that “only men” can have certain jobs and express certain qualities. This type of stereotyping teaches narrow ideas about gender and can lead to bullying and harassment particularly when children exhibit interests and behaviors that go against gender norms (boys who like to dance, girls who are good with computers, children who like to dress up in skirts and play in the mud, etc.). Teaching Tolerance is a great place to start for ideas on lessons for every grade on gender stereotyping.
Second, we need to recognize how gender expectations are tied to bullying and harassment in schools. Dorothy Espelage, an international expert in school violence prevention, published a study that showed that 5th to 7th graders who engaged in bullying were more likely to engage in homophobic harassment and sexual violence. This study showed that if bullying prevention programs don’t address issues of masculinity and homophobia, that they will be largely ineffective. I have written previous posts that share ideas and resources on how to ensure bullying prevention programs and how social-emotional learning curricula can intentionally address issues of gender and sexuality.
Third, schools need to be more intentional (and compliant with federal laws) in the ways they work to prevent and respond to incidences of sexual harassment and assault in their community. I have written several posts about schools who mishandled rape cases, sexual harassment issues, and hazing incidents. Title IX protects students from discrimination on the basis of sex. Sexual harassment and assault are covered under Title IX. You should know who your school’s Title IX coordinator is and ask them what they are doing to prevent sexual harassment and assault in your schools. I have found that this information is often buried and difficult to access. However, if we all called our school districts and asked more of our schools on this front, they might be more likely to ensure that they have a trained, accessible, Title IX coordinator available to support students and families when these things happen and to be responsible for education and prevention activities (as noted in a Dear Colleague Letter sent to all schools from the Department of Education in 2015).
Finally, as parents we need to continue having conversations with our children about touching, respect, and consent. I have always taught my child to ask a friend if they want a hug and waiting until they say "yes" before embracing them (he is a very affectionate and strong child). I have also explained to him that he doesn’t have to hug or kiss anyone if he doesn’t want to. When friends and family leave after a visit I model for them by asking, "would you like to give your cousin a hug, kiss, or a high-five goodbye?" When he states what he is okay with, that is what takes place. We also are clear that when we are wrestling, tickling, playfighting, etc., STOP and NO must be immediately respected. These words are important tools and they only work if we use and respond to them appropriately. These lessons about respecting other people’s bodies and choices happen at a very young age and we need to model and coach them for our children and our families.
Some schools and educators are working hard to teach against harmful cultural norms: in this case toxic masculinity and gender stereotypes. Schools that don’t do this are tacitly and often overtly reinforcing behaviors and beliefs that allow sexual harassment and rape culture to persist. I hope these strategies offer you some ways to start or continue working against harmful gender stereotypes and sexual violence in your schools and communities.
Espelage, D. L., Basile, K. C., De La Rue, L., & Hamburger, M. E. (2014). Longitudinal Associations Among Bully, Homophobic Teasing, and Sexual Violence Perpetration Among Middle School Students. Joural of Interpersonal Violence. doi:10.1177/0886260514553113
Meyer, E. J. (2006). Gendered harassment in North America: School-based interventions for reducing homophobia and heterosexism. In C. Mitchell & F. Leach (Eds.), Combating Gender Violence in and around Schools (pp. 43-50). Stoke on Trent, UK: Trentham Books.
Meyer, E. J. (2009). Gender, bullying, and harassment: Strategies to end sexism and homophobia in schools. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.