In an Ohio high school last year, four boys forced a 14-year-old girl into a school storage closet and sexually assaulted her. In an Indiana middle school, six girls charged a classmate with groping their breasts and buttocks; choking, smacking, and slapping them.
Meanwhile, in a California elementary school, boys created a tradition of slapping and grabbing their female classmates’ buttocks, and called it “Slap Ass Fridays.”
It’s unnerving and uncomfortable to talk about, but student-on-student sexual assault and harassment happen with alarming frequency in school bathrooms, on school playgrounds, and in the backs of school buses. It’s happening at every level of education from preK to college.
It happened to Esther Warkov’s daughter, a student in Seattle public schools. She was raped by a high school classmate – a boy who had previously been disciplined for sexual misconduct when he was in middle school – on a multi-day school field trip. The rape occurred in the presence of other students.
“Our schools are in crisis,” says Warkov, who founded the Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS) organization which advocates for schools to protect students from harassment and assault and to investigate cases as required by law under Title IX.
While occasions of adult-on-child sexual assaults on school property claim headlines – and rightfully so – the problem of student-on-student sexual attacks is much more common. For every adult-on-child sexual assault, there were seven such assaults by students, according to an Associated Press (AP) analysis of federal crime data.
From 2011 to 2015, about 17,000 sexual assaults were committed by U.S. students, AP found, although the number is likely much higher because assaults are under-reported or mislabeled as bullying, particularly among young victims. About 5 percent of the victims AP reported on were 5- and 6-year-olds.
The younger the victim, the more devastating the impact, and the greater the vulnerability to repeated assault. It’s a disturbing trend and one that some educators and parents are reluctant to acknowledge, especially when it involves kids so young. It’s easier to label the acts as bullying or hazing than to call them sex crimes – and violations of federal Title IX safety protections – but advocates say the only way to eliminate these offenses is to face them head-on.
Otherwise, young lives will be destroyed, says Warkov. “Not only do the survivors’ emotional and psychological scars endure long after the attack, but their social lives, education, and career dreams are also shattered,” she says. “For some, the trauma is insurmountable; gender-based harassment and sexual assault have driven an increasing number of adolescent students to suicide,” Warkov adds.
The #metoo social media campaign revealed a hidden truth: Sexual harassment and assault is a normalized, commonplace offense that occurs regularly in every facet of U.S. society – in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, among journalists, comedians, politicians, and professors. Even the current President of the United States famously bragged about sexual harassment and assault, only to later dismiss his comments as “locker room talk.”
When it happens in schools and isn’t addressed, students learn that sexual misconduct is acceptable, even normal. After all, boys will be boys, right? But beliefs and attitudes about healthy relationships and sexuality take root early on in a student’s life and schools must take the initiative to eliminate sexual harassment and assault, educators say, first by acknowledging that these problems exist and then by tackling the problem in curriculum, policy, and the very fabric of school culture and community.
“You’re weak. You’re measly. You’re just a girl.”
These are the messages conveyed – and received – by some students in Jennifer Ryman Meuljic’s third-grade class in the Vancouver School District in Washington. Over time, these ideas translate to feelings of power and powerlessness, which can facilitate victimization by harassers and abusers. But third graders don’t understand any of this. What they do understand, however, is how to respect themselves and their space and how to speak up for themselves if someone gets in their space without their permission.
“We talk a lot about personal bubbles or body space,” she says. “We talk about it when we’re lining up or sitting on the carpet, and we remind students that nobody is allowed into your bubble unless you invite them.”
Meuljic knows that kids like to touch and hug and that’s perfectly fine, as long as it’s welcome on both ends, so she and the other elementary teachers emphasize that everyone has their own personal space that is theirs to protect or share.
“If someone runs up to hug another student or hold their hand, I don’t discourage that, I just say, ‘Did you ask first if that’s OK?’ I teach them to respect and protect their own bubbles and also to respect others’ bubbles by asking if it’s OK to give a hug or sit close by.”
She also tells her students that if someone breaks into their bubble without their permission, they need to tell the person not to do that and to talk to an adult.
“My hope is that they always remember these lessons of protecting and respecting bubbles as they grow up and remember that they are the only ones in control of their bodies,” Meuljic says. “Maybe if we all could instill these ideas from the earliest ages we wouldn’t have so many people ignoring boundaries and exerting their power. I have to believe it will help.”