Why School Administrators Won't Talk About Sexual Harassment

Sexual Violence Protest at Columbia University
Students hold sexual violence protest signs at Columbia University in solidarity with student Emma Sulkowicz "Carry That Weight" project. Zach Schonfeld

Mandy Van Deven and Newsweek are currently crowdfunding an investigative project that will provide an in-depth look at how educators' responses to campus sexual assault are changing. Make it possible for Mandy to shed light on this critical issue by visiting and backing her project here.

Ten years ago, I was a community organizer in the New York City public schools. My job was to work with students, parents, teachers and school administrators to increase girls' safety, and the primary problem they identified was pervasive sexual harassment. According to research conducted by Girls for Gender Equity (GGE), the organization for which I worked, 66 percent of the 1,198 middle school students (ages 11 to 18) surveyed said they'd been sexually harassed at school. One in four reported being harassed daily.

Sexual harassment is so ubiquitous in schools that students and school officials have begun to view it as a normal part of the educational environment. This is one reason why so few students file a report after being harassed — just 3 percent according to GGE — and why many say it's not a problem at their school. But GGE executive director Joanne Smith is not convinced.

"We need to have more conversations about sexual harassment in schools," said Smith. "Because sexual harassment is on the spectrum of gender-based violence and can be a precursor that escalates to rape or even murder."

When I was a community organizer, teachers often told me they were concerned about the sexual harassment they see in their schools, but they didn't feel they had been given the right tools to have meaningful conversations with their students or adequate support from the administration to adequately respond to what they see. Some even expressed a fear of being accused of sexual harassment themselves if they brought up the issue. So, they remained silent or chose to pass the buck to the administration.

Although many school administrators do have their students' best interests in mind, institutional accountability is a double-edged sword for them. Reports of sexual harassment initially increase alongside the proper implementation of policies, which can give the false impression that the schools taking the most effective actions to increase safety are the ones with the biggest sexual harassment problem. Focusing on the numbers obscures the accuracy of what's really happening. Since the short-term consequences don't outweigh the long-term benefits of adopting better policies and practices, nothing ends up changing.

Under Title IX of the Education Amendment, schools that receive federal funding are legally obligated to protect their students from sexual harassment and assault. This is the law that compels colleges to adjudicate allegations of rape instead of relying solely on criminal justice proceedings. However, since its passage in 1972, no school has ever had its funding revoked for non-compliance — although violations are common. Just last week, Princeton University was found to be mishandling its sexual assault allegations, but no punishment was received. This culture of impunity provides little incentive to implement the dictates of Title IX effectively. Today, the U.S. Department of Education has 86 open investigations of Title IX violations at colleges and universities nationwide

When it comes to K-12 institutions, some experts believe the situation is worse. "High schools are basically where colleges were like 15 years ago — in the Dark Ages," Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel for the Victim Rights Law Center, recently told Al Jazeera America. Nearly two dozen K-12 districts across the U.S. currently have open investigations.

The problem of sexual harassment in high school and sexual assault on college campuses is not a straight line, but the connections between the two are clear. Ignoring sexual harassment creates a powder keg situation, and we're in a cultural moment of seeing that powder keg explode. The question is: will we continue to be a country that simply fights the fires or are we turning into one that prevents them from igniting?

Visit our project page at Beacon.