“It is truly important to acknowledge that the problem does not lie within the individual being harassed, the problem lies within the external forces that perpetuate and enable sexual harassment to exist in a place like school, where all are supposed to feel safe.” (Hey, Shorty! p. 110)
The above quote comes from Girls for Gender Equity’s (GGE) recent book Hey, Shorty!: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. On August 10th, Girls for Gender Equity representatives came to Teachers Unite’s summer Restorative Justice Reading Group. Teachers, social workers, and community organizers gathered after having read an excerpt of the book and were prepared to learn about GGE’s work and discuss the issue of sexual harassment in schools.
GGE also works on a more political level, specifically with their Title IX campaign. Title IX is the Education Amendment that outlaws discrimination on the basis of sex in U.S. public schools and requires schools to appoint a Title IX coordinator to handle complaints. GGE called over one hundred schools to simply inquire about this position and most did not have a Title IX coordinator, demonstrating the complete lack of accountability. Their push to make changes to the city school Discipline Code to further define issues of sexual harassment has not yielded any results so far. However, GGE was successful in having the New York City Department of Education (NYC DOE) implement other recommendations such as listing Title IX coordinators on school websites and including GGE’s PSA on the DOE website.
GGE sees sexual harassment as a safety issue, and for this reason it is an urgent matter. They address sexual harassment, as it exists on the broad spectrum of gender based violence, which includes but is not limited to offensive comments, unwanted touches, and rape. GGE also treats LGBT bullying as a form of sexual harassment, even though those students receive no protection under Title IX. Also, less commonly known is the fact that when two other parties do something publicly that makes you feel uncomfortable, you are being sexually harassed.
The idea of personal comfort level opened the group conversation around how educators can address the issue of sexual harassment in schools. A lot depends on perspective, the group agreed; something that makes one person uncomfortable may be perfectly acceptable to another. However, in schools, we need to draw the line somewhere. From a restorative justice angle, all perspectives are valued and respected. Therefore, anything that makes anyone feel uncomfortable could be considered unacceptable. It is important for students to learn the rules and standards of their own school community, and recognize that other spaces have different rules.
Ultimately, the discussion concluded with the idea that what we’re really talking about is a shift in school culture. Creating a sense of community accountability is a task that’s rooted in mutual respect. Oftentimes, however, schools fail to really break down what respect means—including both respect of the self and others. Communication is the key here. If schools are going to address issues of sexual harassment and set down ground rules, discussion needs to take place so that all parties are heard and there is understanding as to why these rules need to exist.
By Emily Shaw – Intern, Dignity in Schools Campaign New York