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Tag: school sexual harassment policy

We must eradicate harassment from our schools

Were you surprised the recent Plan International survey on Sexism in the City showed that for most young women, experiences of street harassment are common?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re a bloke.

Because every woman I know has been catcalled, or followed on the street, or perhaps had a man lunge at her.

The first time I recall being sexually harassed in my community was when I was 12 years old, and just starting high school.

As I walked across a bridge with my friends, filled with nervous excitement about the new girls I might meet, and the stationery I had so carefully selected and packed in my shiny new sparkly pink pencil case, I noticed a man waiting under the bridge for us to pass.

He was masturbating in front of us.

I was so horrified that I ran straight to the local police station to report him. I’m not sure why the police never pursued this — although I do recall them laughing at me when they asked me what exactly I had seen him do and I replied, “wanking”; they hadn’t expected this ponytail-wearing schoolgirl to be quite so blunt. Their amusement only added to my feelings of powerlessness and humiliation.

But “The Wanker”, as all the girls at my school soon named him, remained waiting for us each morning for months. And eventually it became a game to run past him, yelling out our disgust. Shockingly, it no longer shocked me.

For many girls, high schools are a place of learning and harassment. (Pic: iStock)

This was by no means an isolated incident. Plan International’s Report confirms that despite all the education campaigns aimed at reducing sexual harassment, most young women first experience intimidation when in a public space between the ages of 11 and 15 (I sometimes wonder if the very same men who find it amusing to yell out “show us your tits” to school girls as they drive past them at bus stops are the same ones who rant on social media about how paedophiles should be castrated).

In my work as an educator of teen girls, I often hear stories about intimidation and harassment. And I hear the type of advice given to young women in order to help keep them safe, “walk in groups” “follow your instincts and move away if you feel unsafe …”

These offerings are not designed to make girls feel that they are somehow to blame for a culture that often doesn’t seem to like them very much, nor to limit their freedoms. But rather because short-term, while we work to help change the type of culture that allows sexual harassment to flourish, providing our girls with scripts and strategies for keeping them safe feels essential.

I’ve had emails from three different school principals in the years since we have been running our in-school courses thanking us for giving their students the information they needed when they were in a potentially dangerous situation. On all three occasions, not only had the girls known how to respond to stay safe, importantly, they also knew it was not their fault that they had been targeted. As one principal emailed: “They felt angry rather than ashamed which is just as it should be.” Any protective advice given must be carefully framed within a context of unpacking victim blaming and emphasising why violence is always the fault and responsibility of the perpetrator, and never the fault or responsibility of the victim or survivor.

But our girls are not just being harassed on the streets.

I’ve had many conversations with teen girls who feel sexually harassed in their classrooms. There are boys who flick their bra straps, they tell me. Or sniff their seats when they get up to change classes. Boys who talk loudly about porn in graphic, violent detail. What guidance do we give then, when there is no moving away? When speaking to a trusted adult may mean the aggressor is removed from class for a day or so, but is likely to return?

Our schools must make a strong stance against all forms of harassment and be safe places.

How can this be achieved?

We urgently need to do more work with boys in our classrooms on issues like combating violence against women, and helping them unpack toxic masculinity — action that not only helps create a safer environment for young women, but for other boys as we know that the type of boys who sexually harass their female classmates often target other boys they perceive as being more vulnerable too.

We must stop expecting young women to act as modifiers for male misbehaviour. So many girls have told me their teachers ask them to sit near the more disruptive boys as they think this will quieten the lads. But as one 14-year-old girl told me “these boys are just gross and it’s not fair”. And she’s right, it isn’t fair.

And our schools must realise that in the age of #MeToo, discussions around sexual harassment are not theoretical for most young women — but are part of their day-to-day experience.

This post was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 2/6/18 

Facing Up to Sexual Harassment in Schools

Lately I’ve been concerned about a rise in sexual harassment in schools. Too many girls, and some female teachers, are being expected to turn the other cheek in the face of harassment from boys — whether it be verbal taunts, degrading comments on Facebook, explicit text messages or actual physical assault. Some schools are doing a brilliant job of dealing with this issue, but unfortunately there are many schools who are yet to grasp the seriousness of it.

We are on the brink of a disturbing new reality here. Boys are being exposed to a pornification of our culture — in music, on TV, in films and on the net — so it is perhaps little wonder that increasingly they feel that sex-based harassment is acceptable. It is up to schools and parents to teach them that it’s not. 

Too often the victims are left with the burden of trying to combat harassment. Recently a school told me that boys’ sexual comments and attitudes towards female teachers had become so problematic that they needed to take action. So they asked me if I could suggest ways to help their female staff become more resilient to the boys’ sex-based harassment. I applauded the fact that they wanted to take action on behalf of their female staff — but the onus should not have been on those women. Women and girls should never be taught to put up with sexual harassment. It is the boys who need to be taught that girls and women deserve respect, just as every human being deserves respect.

Another recent incident got me thinking about all this. A Year 9 girl stood up in class to get a textbook, when a boy lifted up her skirt for everyone to see and started taunting her. She began crying but managed to compose herself and sit down — and then another boy reached inside her blouse to try to rip her bra off.

The school’s response was to give the boys detention. Given that the same school gives detention for behaviour such as failing to do homework, this was an offensively weak punishment. For the girl, it was like being humiliated all over again. The boys received no counselling on why what they had done was wrong. And because the adults didn’t take it seriously, the boys didn’t either.

It was only when the girl’s incensed father pointed out to the school that what the boys did was actually an assault — a criminal offence — that the penny dropped. The school suspended the boys and called in their parents. Then the boys grasped the seriousness of what they had done, and they gave the girl a genuine apology. Like all kids, teen boys need adults to set and enforce boundaries.

When asked what the school’s sexual harassment policy was, the principal said, “Well, we don’t condone sexual harassment.” That is a laughable response — but actually, we shouldn’t scoff, because this principal is not alone. Plenty of schools don’t have policies. Perhaps they haven’t got around to it, they don’t think harassment is happening in their schools or they don’t grasp how damaging it is. Since this incident, the school is developing a sexual harassment policy. If something like that happens again, there will be guidelines to follow and everyone will understand that sexual harassment is never okay.

Implement a Sexual Harassment Policy at Your School

Formulating a policy for your school does not have to be a daunting task: the Australian Human Rights Commission has exceptional resources to help educators. Below is a summary of what a good sexual harassment policy contains according to the Commission. For more details and guidance, download the full information kit here. It also includes lesson plans, activity and resource sheets, and there’s a DVD available — all of which are very well written and sure to get meaningful discussions going in your classroom.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, a good school sexual harassment policy includes:

  • A strong statement on the school’s attitude to sexual harassment
  • An outline of the school’s objectives regarding sexual harassment 
  • A plain English definition of sexual harassment 
  • A definition of what sexual harassment is not
  • A statement that sexual harassment is against the law
  • Possible consequences if the sexual harassment policy is breached
  • Options available for dealing with sexual harassment
  • Where to get help or advice.

The Human Rights Commission stresses that a written policy is not enough. Ask yourself:

  • Are people aware of the policy? Do they have a copy of it?
  • Is it provided to new staff and students?
  • Is it periodically reviewed? It is available in appropriate languages?
  • Are there training and awareness-related strategies associated with the policy?

School is of the front lines in the battle against sexual harassment. The home is another important one. So I am heartened that there are not only women but also men who are calling for adults to be good role models and to teach kids the importance of respecting all human beings — girls and boys, women and men. This poetic and inspiring call, by a man, for less objectification and more respect of women and girls moved me so much I cried:

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