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We Need Title IX Even in Elementary School

We need Title IX even in elementary school.

We hear about sexual assault on college campuses and sexual harassment in the workplace. But these things don't only happen to people over the age of 18. The startling reality is sexual assault has been found to increase significantly starting between ages 10 and 11 — about the time many students start their middle-school years. According to an Associated Press investigation, there were 17,000 reports of student-on-student sexual assault in a four-year period. And the actual number is probably higher given under-reporting and inconsistent tracking of sexual assault by schools.

Non-violent sexual harassment and gender discrimination are likely even more prevalent. But incidents that aren’t physical or violent are often minimized because their effects are invisible. These psychological paper cuts accumulate, becoming festering wounds of self-doubt.

Janko Ferlič - @specialdaddy on Unsplash
Source: Janko Ferlič - @specialdaddy on Unsplash

Recently, a friend’s 11-year-old daughter was subjected to the chanting of “slut, whore” as a classmate passed her in the hall. My friend emailed the school the next day and got a disturbing response. The school said there was little they could do. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for schools to dismiss incidents they see as little more than petty and harmless.

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, the organization that started the hashtag #MeTooK12, states on their website, “Few people of influence understand how sexual harassment and assault devastate the lives of K-12 students, their families, and friends—beginning in elementary school; and the younger the victim, the more devastating the impact and greater vulnerability to repeated assault. Not only do the survivors’ emotional and psychological scars endure long after the incidents, but their social lives, education, and career dreams can also be shattered.”

Kids who have been sexually harassed experience lower self-esteem, more depression, more suicidal thoughts, more substance abuse, greater loss of appetite and more trouble sleeping than those who do not report being harassed.

My friend was told they couldn’t address the incident directly with the offending boy because her daughter hadn’t reported it in the moment. The choices were for her daughter to sit down with the boy and a teacher and discuss it directly, or they could have a class discussion about treating each other respectfully without specifying the language that had been used.

While it can be beneficial for children to voice their feelings directly to someone who has offended them and hopefully receive a sincere apology, children may feel too scared or embarrassed to do so. Even if this weren’t a gender slur and another insult had been used, a child shouldn't be required to sit in a room with an offender in order for it to be dealt with appropriately.

But it was a gender slur. Especially at this stage of development, kids need to hear that gender-based insults are not okay; that using someone’s sexuality against them is not only hurtful but can be damaging. Title IX — the federal law stating there must be equality in schools — was created, in part, because when demeaning words and actions of a sexual nature are imposed against another person’s will, evidence shows it causes trauma. Making this clear to 5th and 6th graders can help nip it in the bud before they get older and harassment becomes more serious.

Research shows that 7 out of 10 girls will be harassed before they leave high school. Among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students, the numbers are even higher. A large survey of children ages 10-19 done six months after the #MeToo Movement broke showed only about half of girls felt they could tell someone if they were sexually harassed. The feeling of powerlessness that occurs with sexual harassment has a long-term impact on girls’ education, economic life, and mental health. And like my friend’s daughter, nearly one-third of students who experience harassment report not wanting to go to school.

Girls and young women will experience a lifetime of doubting their perceptions and experiences because they have been repeatedly blamed for their complaints or talked out of them. The #MeToo Movement highlighted the prevalence of sexual harassment and made it more evident to girls and women that it’s not their personal failure but rather a failure of our culture. Still, unless the behavior in question is outright rape, society is conditioned to see it as a minor problem.

A simple acknowledgment that it happened and was wrong goes a long way in helping interrupt those cumulative moments that cause trauma.

I'm willing to bet the kid who slung gender slurs isn't a wildly misogynistic boy, but he's definitely testing those limits. It’s incumbent upon the adults in his life to work with him to understand the long-term pain discrimination causes. Ultimately, the school did decide it was important to alert the boy’s parents and talk to him, without shaming him, about the incident. Title IX guarantees a safe, harassment-free learning environment for all students. It’s time schools take it seriously and deal with it swiftly so kids can get on with learning about ancient Egypt and decimals.

This piece is partially excerpted from another article by the author on the need to talk to teens about gender bias and sexual harassment and can be found here.