May 14, 2001

Four of five students 'boys and girls' report that they have experienced some type of sexual harassment in school, despite a greater awareness of school policies dealing with the issue, according to a new report, Hostile Hallways II: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

According to the students surveyed, sexual harassment—words and actions—in school happens often, occurs under teachers’ noses, can begin in elementary school, and is very upsetting to both girls and boys.

"This report says it clearly. Sexual harassment is part of everyday life for boys and girls at school," said Jacqueline Woods, AAUW Executive Director. "While students say they are aware of school policies dealing with sexual harassment," continued Woods, "increased awareness has not translated into fewer incidents of sexual harassment in school life. Parents, teachers, and administrators need to do a better job educating our children on what is and what isn’t appropriate."

According to the report, based on a national survey of 2,064 public school students in 8th through 11th grades conducted by Harris Interactive:

83% of girls and 79% of boys report having ever experienced harassment.

The number of boys reporting experiences with harassment often or occasionally has increased since 1993 (56 % vs. 49 %), although girls are still somewhat more likely to experience it.

For many students sexual harassment is an ongoing experience: over 1 in 4 students experience it "often."

These numbers do not differ by whether the school is urban or suburban or rural.

76% of students have experienced non-physical harassment while 58% have experienced physical harassment. Non-physical harassment includes taunting, rumors, graffiti, jokes or gestures. One-third of all students report experiencing physical harassment "often or occasionally."

Actions hurt but so do words. When given 14 examples of non-physical and physical harassment, students say they would be very upset if someone did the following:

Spread sexual rumors about them (75 %)

Pulled off or down their clothing in a sexual way (74 %)

Said that they were gay or lesbian (73 %)

Forced them to do something sexual other than kissing (72 %)

Spied on them as they dressed or showered at school (69 %)

Although large groups of both boys and girls report experiencing harassment, girls are more likely to report being negatively affected by it.

Girls are far more likely than boys to feel "self conscious" (44% to 19%), "embarrassed" (53% to 32%), and "less confident" (32% to 16%) because of an incident of harassment.

Girls are more likely than boys to change behaviors in school and at home because of the experience, including not talking as much in class (30% to 18%) and avoiding the person who harassed them (56% to 24%).

Girls were consistently more likely to say they would be "very upset" by all 14 incidents of sexual harassment, with the exception of being called gay or lesbian (boys—74 %, girls—73 %).

There has been a sea change in awareness of school policies about harassment since 1993. Seven in 10 students (69%) say that their school has a policy on sexual harassment, compared to only 26% of students in 1993.

Nearly all students (96%) say they know what harassment is, and boys’ and girls’ definitions do not differ substantially.

Substantial numbers of students fear being sexually harassed or hurt in school.

A substantial number of students—both boys and girls—fear being hurt by someone in their school life. Eighteen percent (18%) are afraid some or most of the time, and less than half (46%) are "never" afraid in school.

One-third of students fear being sexually harassed in school. Hispanic boys and girls are more likely than African American students to feel afraid.

Students surveyed were provided with the common definition of sexual harassment as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life. Sexual harassment is not behaviors that you like or want (for example wanted kissing, touching, or flirting)."

"This report is a follow-up to the first nationwide survey on sexual harassment in schools, also commissioned by the AAUW Educational Foundation and researched by Harris Interactive (then known as Louis Harris & Associates)," states Sharon Schuster, President of the Foundation.

According to the new report, harassment has many facets:

Peer-on-peer harassment is most common for both boys and girls, although 7% of boys and girls experiencing physical or nonphysical harassment report being harassed by a teacher.

Boys are more likely than girls to report non-physical harassment in locker rooms (28% v. 15%) or restrooms (15% to 9%).
Half of boys reporting harassment have been non-physically harassed by a girl or woman, and 39% by a group of girls or women. In contrast, girls are most likely to report harassment by one boy or man (73% in non-physical harassment; 84% in physical harassment).

Over one-third (35%) of students who have been harassed report that they first experienced it in elementary school.
Most harassment occurs under teachers’ noses in the classroom (61% for physical harassment and 56% for non-physical) and in the halls (71% for physical harassment and 64% for nonphysical).

Students are perpetrators, too. Slightly more than half of students (54%) say that they have sexually harassed someone during their school life. This represents a decrease from 1993, when 59% admitted as much. In particular, boys are less likely than in 1993 to report being a "perpetrator" (57% to 66%).

"The findings of our report cannot and should not be shrugged off with the attitude that this is just normal pre-teen and teenage behavior. Nor should we assume that ‘zero tolerance’ for all offenders will help teach children the difference between ‘flirting and hurting.’ Lines can be drawn, for example, between flirting that is wanted and flirting that is unwanted and other behaviors that are meant to hurt and harass," added Schuster.

"This report shows that we have much more work to do in educating our students and training our teachers and administrators—as early as elementary school—in dealing appropriately with sexual harassment," added Woods. To follow-up this report, AAUW today announced that it was forming a partnership with the National Education Association and a task force to address sexual harassment in schools. "We are recruiting leading educators and national organizations connected with public schools," said Woods, "to join this effort which we believe is desperately needed to reduce the incidence of these emotionally and physically harmful behaviors in our schools."

"For children who are constantly picked on, ridiculed or harassed, school becomes torture," said NEA President Bob Chase. "We hope this partnership with AAUW will take the terror out of school and provide a more peaceful learning environment for all students by training caring adults to intervene effectively."

About AAUW Educational Foundation

The AAUW Educational Foundation is one of the largest sources of funding for graduate women in the U.S. and abroad and commissions groundbreaking research on educational equity. AAUW, representing 150,000 college graduates in 1,500 communities, is the nation’s leading advocate for education and equity for women and girls.

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