Sexual Harassment in Middle School On the Rise

Thursday, November 10, 2011


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From schoolyard to cyberspace: sexual harassment affects nearly half of kids in middle and high school

Sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools, affecting nearly half of all students, according to a sobering report released by the American Association of University Women.

The organization surveyed 1,965 students in grades 7-12 in May and June of this year, and its new report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School provides fresh evidence about students' experiences, from being harassed to harassing someone else, as well as witnessing harassment.

Harassment in hallways, harassment online

The report, which was released earlier this week, says that of those students surveyed, 48 percent had experienced some form of sexual harassment at school last year, and 87 percent said it had a negative effect on them. Sexual harassment by text, email, Facebook, or other electonic means affected 30 percent of students.

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The AAUW report that details the sobering news

Girls were more likely than boys to be harassed by a significant margin (56 percent versus 40 percent). Girls were also more likely than boys to be sexually harassed both in person (52 percent versus 35 percent) and via electronic means (36 percent versus 24 percent). Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way was reported in equal numbers (18 percent of students).

Bearing witness

Witnessing this kind of harassment was also common, according to the report. One-third (33 percent) of girls and 24 percent of boys said they'd observed at least one incident in the 2010-11 school year. And while events were both experienced and witnessed, reporting was very low: about 9 percent reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor, or other adult at school, and just 27 percent said they talked about it with parents or family (including siblings).

Not only were girls more likely than boys to say sexual harassment caused them to have trouble sleeping (22 percent versus 14 percent of boys), not want to go to school (37 percent of girls versus 25 percent of boys), or change the way they went to or home from school (10 percent of girls versus 6 percent of boys), girls were more likely in every case to say they felt that way for "quite a while" compared with boys.

In Rhode Island: Expert Response

Steve Barreto Ph.D., Senior Psychologist, Pedi-Partial Program, Bradley Hospital, spoke with GoLocal about the report and what Rhode Island families should consider.

Are you seeing this kind of trend here in Rhode Island? 

Rhode Island is no exception when it comes to sexually related bullying or sexual harassment among middle and high school students.  A special senate commission studied cyberthreats, cyberbullying, bullying and sexting and held hearings from Sept 2010 to March 2011 where administrators, teachers, parents and students testified that bullying and cyberbullying took place within their schools.  This has led to governor’s signing of the RI Safe Schools Act (June 2011) where bullying is defined as intentional acts that create intimidating, threatening, hostile, abusive educational environments.

The definition specifically includes gender, sexual orientation, gender identity along with other distinguishing characteristics such as race or physical disability. The Safe School Act has charged the Department of Education to develop a standard set of policies and procedures for reporting and handling bullying in schools.  Many RI schools already have their own policies.  The AAUW survey highlights the prevalence of “gender harassment” where students are targeted for failing to follow norms that are typical for their gender.  Terms such as  “gay” or “lesbian” are used frequently in middle and high school, as well as degrading references to women as sexual objects. These words can cause emotional scars that last.

How can this kind of behavior affect young teens in this age group?

It is a myth that harassment and bullying is a rite of passage that toughens-up youth;  more often than not the experience can damage and emotionally harm the target.  As the survey illustrates, many youth feel ashamed, humiliated or degraded.  They may experience symptoms of anxiety or depression such as nausea, stomach pain, loss of sleep.  They may become more self-conscious and have poorer self-esteem.  Studies have shown more suicidal ideation among bullied youth.  Anxiety and depression can last years and have been reported in longitudinal studies into adulthood (early 20’s).  Of course, there are youth who do not report being substantially harmed by these experiences, and we need to understand more about what makes these youth resilient.  

What can parents do right now to get involved?

If you are a parent, talk to your child and create opportunities for them to share experiences they have witnessed of harassment or bullying. Many studies reveal that youth do not speak to adults about harassment or bullying. They perceive adults as unhelpful and are concerned that the adults may make the problem worse.   Youth are afraid they will lose access to their digital devices if they speak to their parents about offensive or threatening texts, for example.  If parents think their child is a target of harassment, parents should:

Get the facts: Listen carefully to who was involved, what they did.  Face to face harassment often goes together with cyberharassment. Pay close attention to witnesses, bystanders or other involved in the digital communication can help solve problems. 

Support your child: Don’t assume your child did something to provoke the bullying.  Praise them for coming forward.

  • Never tell your child to “ignore” the bully
  • Don’t encourage physical retaliation or “digital” retaliation
  • Don’t “take away” the digital device altogether.  Instead talk about logging off for a period of time, changing a password, blocking the messenger.
  • Keep a record of the bullying, either by copying what is on the device, or taking some notes.
  • Consider alerting the service provider (e.g. Facebook) or the ISP, so action can be taken against the bully.
  • Speak with the police or a lawyer, if there is concern about safety.


Help your child to solve the problem.

Identify several solutions to the problem and look the pro’s and con’s of each.  How will it affect others? Will the solution create other problems for your child?  Does an adult from school need to be involved?

Learn about their digital world and their school’s digital policies and procedures

  • Understand their likes and dislikes
  • Talk to them about privacy and self-protection
  • Parents should go over their school’s digital user-agreements and policies on Cyberbullying and harassment, and discuss the examples provided of inappropriate content.   They should ask their child if they know of anyone who has been cyberbullied and how they think that youth may have felt.


Ask what kind of texts or emails make them uncomfortable and why and give examples of what makes the parent uncomfortable.  Be clear and explicit about what is off limits.

  • Ask them if they know of anyone who has been hurt by something that was sent to them and why.
  • Use a parent-child media agreement to set the “rules of the road” (

Partner with your child’s school and talk to other parents: Parents can partner with schools and join committees to raise awareness and to promote civility, kindness and responsibility among the student body.    Parents can educate themselves using websites such as Rhode Island’s own: or or or

Teachers should call attention to any harassment they see in their classrooms, hallways or cafeterias.  They should take steps to immediately support the target and let them know they were not to blame, and make sure to keep the focus of instruction on the bully, reminding everyone of the school standards for citizenship and respect. 

What should kids be thinking about when it comes to this?

Protect yourself: To avoid being a target on-line, you must protect yourself and avoid giving information or images that can be used against you.  This means understanding social networking default settings and regularly updating them.   It also means “think before you press send.” Don’t send sexually suggestive or explicit photographs of yourself, even to friends.  Never give out your password – ever.  Be especially careful when you are communicating with multiple people on line, for example, when gaming.  Just because it’s a game doesn’t mean that words you write can’t hurt or be used against someone else.

Take it seriously: Teens must understand the line between humor that is friendly teasing and humor that may be seen as harassment.  Look at the way you are communicating with others, especially if you are getting attacked.  You might find you are communicating in a way that is hurtful to others but didn’t realize it.  Take your school’s user agreements and Cyberbullying policies and guidelines seriously and read them, along with your parents.  Being a digital citizen means having privileges; but also responsibilities.

Speak up!: This AAUW survey shows that close to 56% percent of youth report witnessing sexual harassment within the year.  Bullying stops when the bystander steps in, either in person or on-line.   If you see harassment or inappropriate images of peers, you should speak up (as long as you feel it is safe to do so) and let others know you think “that’s not cool.”

Remember, everyone has the right to walk down a school hallway and surf the net free of harassment.   If someone says or does something to you that makes you uncomfortable, talk to an adult about it, especially if you feel threatened.  Ignoring harassment usually doesn’t make it stop.  This survey showed that teens already know that things that can help like anonymous reporting, in-class discussions and talking to an adult.  If your school doesn’t have a way to report harassment that is anonymous, talk to your teachers and administrators about getting one. Talk to your friends. Start a committee. Remember that silence is the friend of the bully!  Participate in discussions in class about rights, protections and free speech.

Take harassment seriously and you will be contributing to a safer place for everyone.


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