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May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

A District's Response to Sexual Harassment

In one suburban Pennsylvania school district, a culture of respect has emerged from a coordinated educational campaign.

As I sat with other administrators discussing sexual harassment, I couldn't help thinking it had a low priority on my list of things to do. As Assistant Superintendent of Great Valley School District in Malvern, Pennsylvania, my plate, like everyone else's, was very full. Sexual harassment hadn't yet surfaced in our suburban district, I thought—that is, until I remembered a disturbing conversation I'd had recently with my 5th grade daughter.
An outgoing, sports-oriented child, Taylure suddenly didn't want to go outside for recess. The reason was the bullying, pushing, and teasing about boy-girl relationships she was being subjected to. Granted, manifestations of sexual harassment in elementary school look very different from those at the higher levels, but the issue of respect is a huge concern in all our schools, one that deserves the attention that only a systemwide sexual harassment program can provide.

Laying the Groundwork

Convincing a school board or an administrative team that denial is not the best route requires both investigation and education. As we began exploring the issue, it quickly became apparent that our staff, students, and parents were relatively naive about sexual harassment. I could imagine the cynicism at the next school board meeting—from the podium and from the audience. Sure, that may happen elsewhere, but not in our schools.Come now, aren't you overreacting?Schools should build skills and leave value and character development to the home and religious community.
Clearly our first task was to develop a common understanding of what constitutes harassment. The term is so broad that some people may envision gang rapes, while others deny that a problem exists. So we began with a needs assessment or reality check. We then developed a district policy. And, finally, we held training sessions for the entire educational community.
To awaken a cautious school board to the realities of sexual harassment in a high school environment, we used a video called In Real Life: Sexual Harassment in Schools. When members actually sat with their teenage children to view the realistic scenarios, they saw how one person's behavior (for example, a young man's increasingly offensive stares and remarks) can dramatically affect another person (a girl becoming increasingly uncomfortable). They came back believers and were ready to launch a program that would establish respect as a preeminent value in the district.
We then applied for and won a Goals 2000 grant to develop a sexual harassment prevention program.

Training the Staff

Once the school board was sold and we received the grant, the next step was to make staff members aware of sexual harassment and its effect on students and adults—that included all staff, from teachers to custodians and secretaries. We also had to familiarize everyone with district policies and procedures to support students who feel victimized. And we had to awaken ourselves to our own responsibility to contribute to a safe and respectful school culture.
We turned to a consulting firm that specializes in sexual harassment in schools. The firm, PeopleTECH, conducted skill-based training sessions for all district faculty and staff, and for all board members and administrators. The questions the facilitators posed, together with the In Real Life video, provided common ground for discussion. Participants explored incidents involving two adults, two students, and one of each (the harasser was sometimes an adult and sometimes a student). Participants also reviewed the policy our district had established for grievances and resolution of sexual harassment issues.
When the training was completed, teachers volunteered to get the process started in their schools and, eventually, to train students. Some of these volunteers were appointed student liaisons—the person in each building to whom students could turn for support in informal peer mediation or formal sexual harassment interventions.

Teaching Students

  • What sexual harassment is
  • How it is perpetuated
  • How and why to seek support
  • How to take action to make sexual harassment stop
  • How school policy applies to every student
Whether they are senior high students learning about intent versus impact, or 1st graders learning how to give red light, yellow light, or green light responses, the message is the same: certain words and actions cause unintended reactions. Thus, in our district, "I didn't know it bothered her" is no longer a valid excuse for inappropriate behavior.
One of the by-products of this training is that students learn positive confrontation techniques. They learn how to tell the harasser that what he or she is doing bothers them, why it does, and that they want it to stop. This skill, when used constructively, is the most proactive component of our program. Positive confrontation strategies significantly reduce the need for formal complaints. They also provide students with invaluable skills they can use all their lives.

Reaching Out to the Community

It is difficult to motivate community members to get involved in problems like sexual harassment. We began our outreach efforts when we began the inservice teacher training, using focus groups, parent-teacher organization forums, and parent education seminars. As in many busy suburban communities, however, these meetings were not heavily attended.
So, to make sure the public was aware of our efforts, we turned to our school district's access TV channel. At regular intervals, we provided information about sexual harassment prevention and the nature of our instruction at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Students, teachers, and PeopleTECH consultants gave radio and television interviews. Several students participated in a Philadelphia television show for teens, Rap Around. Articles describing the prevention program were published in local and high school newspapers. And we networked with other community organizations, such as the American Association of University Women.
Although our community campaign drew a limited response from residents within our school district, the many requests for information we received from other districts led us to believe that the word was getting out.

Facing the Pitfalls

A school district can hardly be faulted for protecting children, but it can be attacked for promoting an issue as emotionally charged as sexual harassment. Therefore school districts must assess community tolerance before planning their approach to the issue. In our case, the selection of a consulting firm, the systemwide training, and our community outreach were all built around the theme of respect—a value we were sure would be accepted by the Great Valley network.
Another possible complication is the potential for strong union resistance when teachers serve as liaisons. In our district, for example, union officials do not want teachers serving in this role when either the accused or the accuser is a professional. Therefore, the liaison role falls to an administrator. Still, we do use teacher liaisons for student-to-student complaints, thus maintaining professional investment in the program.
Finally, the program takes staff time. In addition to acting as school liaisons, teachers need to train students in the classroom, and entire faculties must dedicate themselves to sexual harassment education. If there is united support for the district's mission, teachers are more likely to tolerate disruptions in schedules, whether for a day or a week.

Sizing Up the Results

Because our program was funded through a Goals 2000 grant, we were required to evaluate the results. Key findings suggested that students, staff, and parents have developed the skills they need to respond appropriately to sexual harassment incidents. One area that apparently needs improvement, however, is parents' and students' understanding of district policy and procedures. We are now initiating follow-up focus groups for feedback.
Meanwhile, my daughter Taylure, like all of our students, can now rely on a school system that is no longer in denial about sexual harassment and is committed to providing an atmosphere of respect for everyone.
End Notes

1 C. Cohn, J. Hoffman, and A. Mozenter, (1994), In Real Life: Sexual Harassment in Schools, Training Series and Video (Wayne, Pa.: PeopleTECH).

Adele H. Corbett has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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