Teaching #MeToo: Schools Are Pivotal in Changing the Narrative around Sexual Abuse and Harassment

October will mark the two-year anniversary of the publication of The New York Times exposé on film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of female colleagues and celebrities. The article’s revelations were some of the most recent catalysts for the #MeToo movement.

[Above: Members of Sex Etc., a pro-sexual health education group for teenagers, attend an Answer training session in fall 2018.] 

The term “Me Too” was originally coined by activist Tarana Burke in 2006. Burke founded Just Be Inc. to help victims of harassment and assault long before the “Me Too” hashtag became a venue on social media for survivors of abuse to tell their stories.

But advocates argue that young people continue to be left out of the conversation. While stories about harassment of White women in the midst of their careers dominate the headlines, there has been little concrete discussion in K-12 schools of how to prevent perpetuating this cycle of toxic behavior, according to Girls Inc., an organization that works to include girls in the #MeToo conversation.

This lack of discussion exists in spite of the fact that five months before the Weinstein allegations went public, the Associated Press conducted an in-depth investigation into what it calls the “hidden horror” of sexual harassment and abuse in middle and high schools. 

The investigation revealed 17,000 cases of sexual violence in United States schools from 2011 to 2015. The AP says the actual number is likely higher because many survivors don’t disclose these incidents, and not all schools file official reports. In 95 percent of cases, boys committed the abuse. 

Christia Spears Brown
Christia Spears Brown

Christia Spears Brown, PhD, a psychologist and director of the Center for Equality and Social Justice at University of Kentucky, agrees that sexual harassment and abuse in schools is probably far more prevalent than most adults, including teachers, realize.

Children learn this behavior is acceptable through pervasive cultural messages regarding gender norms and the sexual objectification of women, Brown says. These messages, including the concept that masculinity is tied to the denigration of women, are typically ingrained by the time they reach middle school.

An expert on the effects of gender stereotypes on child development, Brown says sexual harassment by male classmates becomes a reality for many girls starting in the sixth grade. Nearly 96 percent of students will witness or experience harassment by the end of middle school, she says.

“[Schools] don’t talk to kids about what sexual harassment is, what consent is, and surveys have found that only around 12 percent of students think their schools actually respond to this behavior,” Brown says, adding that this toxic behavior inhibits healthy socioemotional development for all genders. “There’s all these harms for boys and girls, and what we see is that schools don’t really do much to stop it.”

Brown recommends administrators address sexual harassment in the same manner that many schools have approached bullying: better teacher training, clear guidelines for reporting abuse, and zero tolerance policies. 

Real change, however, requires cultural shifts in thinking and conduct that come from students themselves, Brown says. Encouraging this requires “recognizing that what is most important to adolescents is acceptance by their peer group,” she says, “so [adults] should be trying to foster a culture of change through them.”

Teachers can initiate this change by helping students learn to think critically about cultural scripts for masculine behavior and the objectification of women in the media. Classroom activities that help them learn how to identify these messages are simple ways to start the conversation.

“A lot of this is just about knowledge as power, because [these messages] are so ubiquitous in our culture that it’s hard for kids to even recognize it. It can be really impactful to just help them be able to point it out and then brainstorm ways to behave differently,” Brown says.

In addition, she encourages schools to foster friendships between boys and girls starting at a young age. Cultivating respectful relationships among children of different genders increases the likelihood that boys will view girls as equals and will facilitate better communication by the time students reach puberty. 

“Much of this harassment and abuse is not about sex so much as it is about respect for the other gender,” Brown says. 

Dan Rice
Dan Rice

Schools looking to broach this topic should “start early and have the conversation often,” says Dan Rice, director of training for Answer, an organization that provides sex education resources and teacher trainings nationwide.

“People wonder how you could possibly talk about this issue with kindergartners,” Rice says, but teaching about consent doesn’t necessarily mean only talking about bodily autonomy or the right to be in control of one’s own body without outside influence. 

Teachers can help young children understand that they don’t have to give something to a classmate if they don’t want to; nor should they take something from a friend who says, “No.” This practice can lead to a discussion of why students shouldn’t try to hold hands with or hug a classmate if the classmate  doesn’t want to — a discussion that should be ongoing as youth develop through puberty and begin to have romantic relationships, Rice says. 

Establishing these simple behavioral expectations “can be a really powerful message to grow up with,” given the messages that our culture sends to young boys regarding masculinity, he says. 

Answer, a program supported by Rutgers University, has strategies and online resources tailored specifically to talking about sexual harassment with boys in different grade levels. A video series for preadolescents, for example, addresses the topic using sports analogies.

“Just because a person agrees to play a sport with you, doesn’t mean you can just change the game and expect them to want to play a different sport,” Rice says. “We talk about consent in these terms to make it really concrete but not super sexualized because we’re addressing 10- to 14-year-olds.” 

Answer’s teacher trainings also address the fact that boys can be targets of sexual harassment and assault. Statistics on how many young men experience this type of abuse from their peers — including from girls — varies widely by source, but Rice says these instances are probably underreported. Building awareness of these issues can help young people of all genders feel more empowered to say no and report instances of sexual abuse, Rice adds. 

Princeton Day School (PDS), an independent pre-K-12 institution, is one example of how a school community can come together in establishing cultural norms against harassment and abuse. Around the time The New York Times article was published, an incident occurred at the school in which one student shared an inappropriate photo of a classmate, says Maritoni Shah, MD, director of wellness services.

PDS students, motivated by media coverage of #MeToo, approached administrators with a demand for action to prevent this type of incident from occurring in the future. 

Through talks with student representatives, PDS developed a more transparent, comprehensive sexual misconduct policy, but that was just the first step, Shah says.

“The students came to us saying, ‘You did what we asked for in establishing rules and expectations, but now you need to show us what that means,’” she says, adding that it was the students themselves who have been “foot soldiers of change” since this incident occurred. “They wanted us to model what was appropriate and what happens when students don’t behave [appropriately].”

Shah worked with area colleges in developing programming that would meet student needs. Princeton University, which is not officially affiliated with PDS, helped provide resources and expertise to create online sexual harassment training as part of PDS’ upper school orientation for freshmen. The school also held assemblies where role models such as college athletes gave talks about sexual harassment and abuse, including scenarios for bystander intervention and descriptions of what healthy relationships look like. 

PDS administrators also held community-wide talks for students, parents, and teachers to share their thoughts and learn more about the steps the school was taking in proactively combating sexual harassment. The result was that students felt empowered to bring multiple ideas to the table, Shah says.

Some formed an organization specifically centered around promoting gender equity and consent education, while others submitted a petition to end the marginalization of girls in the school’s theater program. The student government also added a position for a designated representative on issues of sexual harassment and gender equality. “This is an appointed position for every grade so that there will always be this longitudinal relationship of this movement and this effort from year to year,” Shah says. 

Fostering a culture of mutual respect and trust among all genders is not something that can be addressed through a single event or training, she says. Like Brown, Shah believes that real change requires students to establish new norms and expectations among themselves for what is appropriate.

As an independent school, PDS has a unique ability to support this change by developing innovative programming and fostering continuous discussion among the entire school community, Shah says. “It has been a year and a half and we’re still doing these kinds of things to help our high schoolers, middle schoolers, and even lower school students understand that we’re a community based on positive relationships.”

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of DiversityIS. This article ran in the Summer 2019 issue.