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Voices in Education: Why Addressing Sexual Harassment in Middle School Is Vital

Frank conversations about sexual and gender-based harassment are a crucial part of sexual abuse prevention

Published on: January 31, 2022

Friend comforts fellow student after he has been bullied

In the wake of #MeToo and other movements that put a spotlight on sexual harassment and violence, the education space has seen an emergence of state standards supporting harassment prevention and teaching kids about consent. More conversations with students about personal responsibility, boundaries and gender stereotypes are happening than ever before — from kindergartners getting the choice between a high five and a hug to middle school teachers pointing out an imbalance in gender dynamics in classrooms.

Along with reinforcing a sense of personal empowerment, addressing sexual and gender-based harassment (harassment based on gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression) is a crucial part of sexual abuse prevention. By talking with middle schoolers about how to set and respect boundaries and by taking reports of harassment seriously, educators can play a critical role in preventing both victimization and perpetration.

Research about sexual harassment and abuse

While research about the connection between harassment and future violence is still in the early stages, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence indicates that addressing sexual and gender-based harassment in middle school is not only developmentally appropriate, but critical for intervention. The study also suggests that preventing bullying and homophobic name-calling in middle school could help prevent future sexual violence — nearly 36 percent of sexual abuse offenders are older children or teenagers.

Another 2018 study indicates that adolescence is a key time to combat gender stereotypes, and it suggests that sexual violence prevention efforts should directly address harmful attitudes about traditional masculinity, pro-violence attitudes and dismissiveness of sexual harassment.

Beyond ‘bad behavior’

Sexual and gender-based harassment can include spreading sexual rumors, unwanted touching and homophobic name-calling, and it can happen to students of any gender identity or sexual orientation.

Dismissing these forms of harassment as merely “inappropriate” or “bad behavior” undercuts the severity of the issue. Conveying to students that they have a legal right not to be harassed and a responsibility not to harass others is important for developing students’ sense of personal agency as well as establishing broader accountability and protections. Educators also need to understand what constitutes sexual harassment and what student protections are enforced under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which defends people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Defining harassment and taking action

Encourage your middle school students not only to take note of when they’re uncomfortable with someone else’s behavior, but to recognize and respect when their peers are uncomfortable, too. Make sure students know you’re available to talk and help them with these kinds of safety issues.

The Second Step middle school curriculum program focuses on the topic of sexual harassment and helps students:

  • Define sexual harassment
  • Recognize the differences between sexual harassment and flirting
  • Understand that peer-to-peer sexual harassment can happen to anyone
  • Think about the effects of harassment
  • Know where they can go for help if they witness or experience harassment
  • Recognize that sexual harassment is serious and against the law

The program also includes advisory activities focused on gender-based harassment, disrespect and acceptable behaviors in dating relationships.

Sexual harassment ‘hot spots’

Most kids experience harassment in locations that aren’t closely monitored by adults, places such as hallways, cafeterias and bus stops. We call these “hot spots” for bullying and harassment.

Resources for educators and families

At Committee for Children’s Hot Chocolate Talk website, educators can learn how to encourage families to talk to children about sexual abuse prevention at home, and families can find tips for talking with preteens and teenagers about sexuality and consent, boundaries and standing up for others. Visit the site to download how-to guides packed with decades of expert research for beginning and continuing crucial conversations with your child every day — at any age, from toddler to teen.

Fiction and nonfiction books that deal with themes of sexuality, sexual assault, consent and personal empowerment are another tool that educators and families can use to support middle schoolers as they navigate social situations that require a strong sense of personal agency. Visit Committee for Children’s ParenTeen Connect website to explore suggested titles and other resources.

Sexual and gender-based harassment can be difficult subjects to broach, but abuse thrives on silence. By taking harassment seriously, educators and families help empower students to address issues related to dating, gender dynamics and consent, and to avoid becoming victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse.

This article was first published on the Committee for Children blog.

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