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Addressing Sexual Harassment in Elementary School

When student’s experience sexual harassment, their ability to learn is jeopardized. A study conducted by the American Association of University Women found nearly 50% of 7th grade students report experiencing sexual harassment during the 2010 – 2011 school year (AAUW, 2011, p11). Advocates can and should be a part of preventing sexual harassment, and it must start in elementary school.

What is sexual harassment?

The US Department of Education defines sexual harassment as conduct that:

  1. is sexual in nature;

  2. is unwelcome; and

  3. denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program.

This can occur in any school activity or program and can occur on school property, at any school sponsored event, or on a school bus.

Advocates can provide trainings to elementary schools.

The US Department of Education states that judgment and common sense of school personnel are part of the most important elements in determining when sexual harassment has occurred, especially involving elementary school students. Due to this, it is important that schools receive adequate training and information on what sexual harassment looks like and how to appropriately respond to reports.

  • Start with administration. If you are unable to hold a training for all staff, reach out to the school counselor, behavioral interventionist, school psychologist, principal, and office staff.

  • Train recess staff. Many times incidents of sexual harassment occur during recess. There are few staff supervising many children at this time, and many lack the training, time, or ability to respond adequately to reports of general bullying and harassment, let alone sexual harassment.

  • Find a trusted teacher. Most schools have a teacher that is popular with the students. Students feel safe and comfortable opening up to this teacher about their experiences. Being able to find, inform, and train this teacher on sexual harassment is important in reaching students.

  • Partner with the 5th grade sexuality curriculum instructor. For some students the sexuality curriculum taught in elementary school is the first time they are hearing about sex, puberty, body parts, and their functions. An advocate can help close the conversations with a short conversation on the importance of boundaries and respect.

Be sure to talk about:

  • Title IX. Every staff person should know or have easy access in finding who the Title IX officer is for their school.

  • Schools must make responding to sexual harassment a priority. They should know what to say to a student who discloses their experience. They also need to know how to appropriately respond the person committing sexual harassment.

  • Share relevant examples. Discuss the definition and share examples that are common in elementary schools (i.e. “slap butt Friday”, inappropriate jokes about sexual activity, comments about body parts or puberty)

  • Anti-sexual harassment poster. This poster is a great starting place in talking with schools. Designed by 4th-11th grade student activists in Washington State, this poster can be displayed in elementary, middle and high schools and has a space for you to put your program contact information. Available here.

Additional Resources

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Reviewed: March 7th, 2017