Teach them respect and courage early

BOSTON—It happens in public, not behind a closed office door. There is no “he said/she said” dispute about the facts. Everybody can see what’s going on. Friends, classmates, teachers.

A boy backs a girl up against her junior high locker. Day after day. A high school girl in the hallway grabs a boy’s butt. A sophomore in the playgrounds grabs a girl’s blouse. An eighth-grade girl gets up to speak in a class and the boys begin to “moo” at her. A ninth-grader finds out that her name and her “hot number” are posted in the boy’s bathroom.

It’s all quite normal, or at least it’s become the norm. This aberrant behavior is now as much a part of the daily curriculum, the things children learn, as math or social studies. Or their worth in the world.

This is the searing message of another survey that came spilling out of the schoolhouse door last week. This one, commissioned by the American Association of University Women confirmed the grim fact that four out of five public school students between grades 8 and 11—85 percent of the girls and 76 percent of the boys—have experienced sexual harassment.

That’s if sexual harassment means—and it does—”unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life.” That’s if sexual harassment includes—and it does—sexual comments, touching, pinching, grabbing, and worse.

The girls in schools are the more frequent targets of the more serious verbal and physical assaults. They suffer more painful repercussions in their lives, their grades, their sense of well-being.

But the notion that “everybody does it” is not far off the mark. If some 81 percent of the students in the AAUW survey were targets, here’s another figure to remember. Some 59 percent—66 percent of the boys and 52 percent of the girls—admitted that they had done unto others what was done to them.

In public spaces in public schools, nearly every student is then a target or a perpetrator or a bystander—or all three in turn. The vast majority have been up close and too personal, with sexual harassment. Yet we are still grappling with how it happened and how to change the school house and hallway.

In Minnesota, the agent of change has been a fistful of lawsuits. In California, a new law was passed that allows expulsions. Elsewhere, schools are looking for a magic bullet, a one-day workshop, a ten-point program.

But cultural change requires more than a crash curriculum; there is no quick fix in the creeping court system. Indeed Mary Rowe of M.I.T., who has studied harassment for over a decade, has learned that the vast majority of students won’t bring their stories to any formal grievance procedure, let alone a courtroom. They won’t tattle tale.

For a host of reasons, she and others, like Nan Stein of Wellesley College, have come to believe that the schools need a wider range of choices to fill the space between doing nothing and suing. They need teachers who see and say “no” to harassment in class. They need to help students address each other directly and honestly. Indeed in one tactic, a student is encouraged to write a personal letter to the classmate who hurt her … maybe unwittingly.

A school culture of sexual harassment exists in a wide and troubling social context, but change ultimately rests in the hands of the students themselves. After all, not all boys will be boys. Not all girls follow the leader.

So, these days, when Nan Stein goes into a school, she says, “I talk a lot about courage.” She thinks the role that everybody plays, the bystander, is pivotal. “Kids have to learn to speak out, to make moral judgments. I tell them not to be moral spectators.”

Sexual harassment is, as Stein says, an older cousin to bullying. Students who understand the dividing line between teasing and bullying, can learn the line between sexual play and harassment. They can draw that line.

The most powerful tool for the everyday garden-variety misery of name-calling, body-pinching and sexual bullying that turns a school hallway into a gauntlet may not be a lawsuit. It may be one high school senior walking by who says, “Don’t do that, it’s gross.” It may be one group of buddies who don’t laugh at the joke.

In our society, the courts are the last-ditch place for resolving conflicts. The schools must become the place for teaching basics. Like respect and courage.