Fifty eight percent of 7th through 12th graders experience sexual harassment in any given school year, according to a study done about sexual violence in high schools. According to a 2008 study, 1 in 5 high school girls say that they have been sexually assaulted at school. We spoke to the Clayton High School Counseling Department to gain a little more insight about how these statistics play out at CHS.
“[We] haven’t had any students come forward this year that [We’ve] dealt with personally,” said the Counseling Department. “All of us would split sexual harassment and assault. [We] have not had any complaints of sexual assault. [We] have had a harassment complaint. [We] have had students come to [us]. It was more of a processing thing. What was this like, and what were the feelings. Trying to understand if this is harassment or whatever it was. They had already gone to family and they were just coming here to figure out what it is and what the situation was. It was much more about them processing it and trying to figure out what category to put it in. [We[ shared it with administration and we kind of let it go at that.”
A 1993 study in Louisiana showed that only half of high school rape victims ever told anyone about their attack. It has been found that with sexual assaults and attacks at a high school age, the victim is much less likely to come forward and report the event.
“Sexual assault or sexual harassment is less reported by high school students than it is at a college level,” said the Counseling Department. “[We] think it happens, but [We] think it’s less reported. [We] get a sense that sometimes kids, at this age level, especially a 9th or 10th grader, may not be adept enough to consider what sexual harassment may be. They may think that a kid is just playing around with them in the hallway. But really it would probably be sexual harassment.”
Not only are counselors involved when there is a reported situation of sexual misconduct in the high school, but administration is highly involved as well. Witnesses of victims must report the event to a teacher or principal, who then investigate the situation. After interviewing the perpetrator, they write a full, written report to the superintendent who will then determine the disciplinary action that is to be taken.
CHS defines sexual harassment as, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature by anyone—employees, students or others. This definition includes, but is not limited to, both overt and subtle types of harassment such as uninvited letters, telephone calls, looks, gestures, touching, teasing, jokes, remarks and questions of a sexual nature. Further prohibited is any uninvited pressure for dates, explicit or implicit suggestion of sexual favors as a condition of employment or academic status or attempted or actual sexual assault.”
The counselors are there for students to further process these events. Administration is there to deal with the discipline side of the issue.
“An assault or a harassment is a discipline thing,” said the Counseling Department. “Of course there’s a counseling piece to it, to help them process it and figure out ‘what are your options,’ but at that point, it becomes an administrative situation. [We’ve] had students in the past, in the hallways, especially underclassmen and things like that, and there’s this sort of crowded inappropriate touching during that passing time. [We’ve] had breakups between students before, where you constantly have to see each other. One is hurt so rumors start and so the harassment is not necessarily ‘I harass you sexually,’; it’s the things that are said about you and spread around about you.”
As times have changed, so has the technology.
CHS recognizes that there are new ways that sexual harassment can manifest. One of the more popular ways has become social media and the abuse of it.
“[We] think that we can all speak to the social media [aspect],” said the Counseling Department. “It’s not necessarily just boy and girl. It is a bunch of girls that will get on with really negative things and it can be sexual in nature. You’re a slut, you’re a whore, you’re a this, you’re a that, that is equally as hurtful than anything a boy would say. Or in a breakup or in a situation where sexual details are shared with other people––in my mind that’s equally as harassing and assaulting to how I feel about myself and how I feel about myself in this very public world: high school.”
There are examples of social media being used to cyberbully other teenagers, and the counselors at CHS are no stranger to this tool being used to torment another student, sexually or in any other way. One of the counselors shared this story of a past student’s difficult experience.
“There was a student who transferred in from another local high school,” the counselor said. “She had been at a party and had been intoxicated. She had done some inappropriate things and she had been filmed. It was put on social media the next day. It changed her life completely. She couldn’t go back to school; she ended up not doing well academically. They had to move. They literally had to move to another school district and she started here. That’s how bad it was. I don’t think anybody at this table or in the administration discounts the impact that assault or harassment would have.”
Even after transferring to Clayton, the same student still was tormented by the sexual abuse that had been inflicted upon her at her previous school.
“Through the social media, the harassment started bigger and bigger and other people from other schools knew. When I got her, that news about her that wasn’t really true, she couldn’t stop it at all. It was starting to creep in here too. One person saw on social media, and then another and it sort of rolled on her here. It can really change a lot for a student. For a person. Not just for a girl.”
These changing times call for the changing of how students are educated. Online sexual harassment has since been introduced into the curriculum students are taught.
“Our health curriculum has also changed,” said the Counseling Department. “Texting, sexting, that wasn’t a part of it ten years ago. And now it’s still not covered as much as it need to be covered. Officer Zlatic went into the classes a few years ago and talked about social media and texting and what that looks like if you say something or if you spread something around. Those are not conversations we would’ve had ten years ago.”
Even so, the conversations being had now do not fully cover and address the conversations necessary for complete sexual education.
“[We] think we’re doing it indirectly by the building of the relationships and making sure everyone feels connected so that they all have somebody that they think they could share with,” said the department. “But we probably could stand to do more and be more directive.”
The counselors think that there is more that the school could be doing to help its students, and there are many organizations out there that could assist with that deeper learning.
“[We] think there are campaigns that are out there and simple messages that could be helpful,” said the Counseling Department. “It’s about self worth and those messages that can play and could easily be done throughout the school and should be.”
Loveisrespect.org is a campaign, recommended by a member of the counseling staff, that focuses educating members of the community on what consent is, relationships and even communication or trust. Education is key when schools aim to build healthy and prosperous students.
“Educating, especially at that freshman/sophomore level and even into middle school, where you’ve played with people in the past and learning that that’s not okay and touching is not okay,” said the Counseling Department.
“Sometimes [we] think that it’s like ‘Well, we were just playing around,’ but no one has ever acknowledged that it’s not okay. Or even said ‘You can’t touch someone in that place even when you’re playing around.’ [We] think we need to be intentional in our words and actions. We’re still having those kinds of conversations.”
And the earlier the better. According to the counseling department 9th graders are too old to being learning about relationships and sexual conduct for the first time.
“It has to start very, very early. We cannot start at the high school level. It has to start really very young: what is appropriate, what is inappropriate, what is welcomed, and what is not welcomed. And [we] think we do. At the elementary schools we have a lot of those conversations and we meet regularly with all of the counselors throughout. Once it gets to the high school level and it becomes assault or harassment, it’s discipline.”
While prevented sexual harassment and assault as a whole is the number one priority, it is realistic to plan on ways of making students in the building feel more comfortable about sharing their story and talking action. Too many fall silent due to shame or confusion.
“[We] think it’s about empowering students to be able to say ‘This is not ok, here’s the avenue with which I share that with,” said the Counseling Department. “It telling them that this is an okay thing to talk about and that this is an okay thing to process. We say that about many other things so we need to say it about this.”
The bonds that students make with each other and faculty members are important in every teenager’s life. Everyone needs a trusted adult to talk to in their time of need, and CHS tries their best at attempting to provide each and every student with that very figure.
“[We] do think that we are fortunate in this community, and many students don’t realize it, but students are fortunate enough to have relationships with all sorts of people––not just the counselors but with the teachers,” said Counseling Department. “We all are in communication with each other. It’s very rare for a student not to have some kind of cohort in the building where eventually, if there’s some sort of problem, it will come to surface. And there will be a great deal of support.”
For many CHS students, the next step after high school becomes college. Professor Dzuback is on the Sexual Assault Advisory board, and she hears out the cases of students at Washington University.
“What strikes me is the lack of communication and that’s what leads to these situations where people feel taken advantage of, abused, or they don’t understand what’s happened and they’re confused,” said Dzuback. “Men and women want more meaningful relationships, but they don’t know how to create them. They’re in this culture that’s putting pressure on them to rack up notches in their belts, but they’re not making meaningful connections.”
Without learning how to make these meaningful connections at an early age, students are often lost when they mature into adults looking for relationships. Universities and even high schools need to provide time and safe spaces to talk through their thoughts surrounding relationships.
“It should be direct and it should give kids places to talk and ask questions and get some answers and explore what this means,” said Dzuback. “That’s a way to intervene in this gender unequal interaction where women gay people and trans people are harassed because of their sexuality are taken advantage of, or abused or mistreated.”
One in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while on a college campus. 90 percent of these attacks go unreported.
“A fairly high proportion of women have experienced assault,” said Dzuback. “We know less about men. There’s no place safe to talk about it except a psychiatrist’s office. Nobody should be afraid. They shouldn’t be afraid of guns, and they shouldn’t be afraid of being assaulted in our schools or on their campuses.”
Dzuback advice for students who are in the middle of the college selection process is as follows:
“When you get to campus look around for organizations that you can get involved with that do anti-assault and assault prevention training that offer opportunities to provide assistance and support for people who are assaulted. Educate yourself on the issue,” said Dzuback.
The students at Washington University were very involved in making their school a safer place. They started hotlines and made demands for sexual violence prevention professionals to be hired by the university.
“Students started an assault hotline for students to call in; they demanded that we get assault and violence prevention coordinator who is now directing the Assault and Violence Prevention Center on campus with two people working under her,” said Dzuback. “We now have a Title IX coordinator, who’s a lawyer that’s dealing with assault cases. This whole thing has grown out of student demands. Your institution responds to the situation and does something about it, and a whole range of education programs are created. Student activism is really critical. It’s your campus for four years. So try to do something about it.”
It’s not only your campus for four years––for some, it’s their home. Even though student activism can accomplish a great deal, it’s important to make sure that a college or university already has set rules in place that will keep you and other students safe.
“Make very clear and explicit in the school’s mission and ethical code and everybody shares it from the janitors, to the security officers, to the athletic directors, to teachers, everybody in the school––anybody who’s an adult––[make sure] they all understand that this is absolutely unacceptable at this institution,” said Dzuback. “They should all agree to it and all have some sort of training about how to intervene. Then you can train students on bystander intervention. Students are the ones who see what goes on in those crowds in the hallway and they can just say, ‘Hey, man. Don’t do that. I’m gonna have to report you if you do it again.’”
Punishment is important when dealing with these very perpetrators. There needs to be a change within the individuals themselves so that it can be insured that they won’t be a danger to others around them once their punishment has run its course.
“One of the most effective ways of getting people to examine their behavior is to hear other people share the pain of their stories, whether it’s an assembly or in smaller classroom size gatherings or in those kinds of venues,” said Dzuback. “You make sure those are safe spaces so people can say what they’ve experienced and what it left them feeling. Then you create penalties. People are suspended are kicked out. One of the ways to sort of enforce that is to have student governance. There’s punishment if somebody violates one piece of the code and you can have students participate in constructing the code.”
Student participation is a key part in how WashU handles its punishments.
“There’s a student jury who makes a decision. All of our committees have students on them,” said Dzuback. “Whether students are cheating or engaged in assault or anything like that.”
This very student involvement could help aid CHS students in their feeling of importance and fairness. College campuses are a place of learning and independence, but this next step in life comes hand in hand with a great deal of responsibility. Many CHS students will be heading to these campuses in the fall. Teaching teenagers what we can now is what schools can do to make the percentage of sexual harassments and assaults go down. According to Rape Response Services, 1 in five men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime. For women, the chances are 1 in 2. These statistics change based on how our children are educated.