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We already know that school can be fraught with all sorts of awkwardness and self-doubt. Now a new survey reveals that it’s also a time when almost half the student body is sexually harassed. A shocking 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys in grades 7 through 12 experienced some type of sexual harassment from other students during the 2010 to 2011 school year, according to a nationally representative survey from the American Association of University Women (AAUM), an advocacy, education and research organization.
The harassment occurs in person and virtually and includes racy comments and jokes, rumor-spreading, physical touching and being called gay or lesbian in a negative way. A whopping 91 percent of affected kids never breathed a word of the problem to an adult in their school, even though 87 percent say the harassment had a negative impact, such as harming their study habits, attendance or physical health.
Bullying expert Bridget Roberts-Pittman, Ph.D., assistant professor of counseling at Indiana State University is not at all surprised that so few kids came forward. "Kids often fear that the harassment will only get worse if they tell, that their concern won't be addressed properly or that adults simply won’t understand. And they also fear that parents will take away their cell phones or computers as a way of saying, 'See, I told you that phone would only lead to trouble.'"
So how do you get your kids to clue you in? "You need to get the conversation started. Your child is not going to go first," says Roberts-Pittman. It’s best to start talking before you see any changes or problems in your kiddo's behavior. "Given the prevalence of harassment, it’s really never too early," she says. Need a way in? Try these:
Talk to your children about what healthy friendships and dating relationships look like. For instance, if you witness a disrespectful interaction at the mall, on the bus or even on TV, ask your child what he thought about it, and then use that as a stepping stone to ask about his relationships at school.
Clearly explain to your child what sexual harassment is -- and then find out and explain your school’s sexual-harassment policy. And know that regardless of the individual school's policy, Title IX legally protects students against sexual harassment and requires schools to appoint a Title IX coordinator whose job it is to implement sexual-harassment policies. Talk to the principal to find out if your child’s school complies.
Remember, the kids are watching you. "One of the best ways to teach your daughter confidence and assertiveness is for the women in her life to display confidence and assertiveness in their daily lives," says Roberts-Pittman.
Talk about empathy. "Some children who bully or harass don’t see their behavior as wrong, so awareness is step one,” says Roberts-Pittman. To wit: The survey found that 44 percent of those who harass believe their behavior was just a fact of school life and 39 percent thought they were being funny. "Help your child learn to see the situation from someone else’s perspective." Role playing can help kids see what harassment feels like on the other side.