The #MeToo movement has galvanized the country around the pervasive problem of sexual harassment and violence. We know sexual harassment in schools is all too common. Title IX requires schools to prevent and address harassment against students, to ensure their civil rights are not violated. But that’s the bare minimum that schools must do. Schools can and should go further to create safe, affirming environments where all youth thrive.
Following are four ways schools can fully support students, help them overcome challenges, and set them up for success in school and in life.
- Teach them about healthy relationships. We need to talk to young people about sexual harassment, communication and consent, boundaries, gender stereotypes and power imbalances in society. At home, in the streets, and online, kids are receiving messages that pose serious threats to their health and wellbeing and that of others. If all we’re teaching young people is how to avoid pregnancy or STIs, they will continue to go without the valuable, comprehensive information they need for their health and wellbeing.
- Train teachers and administrators to appropriately address student behavior. Teachers must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to recognize when student behaviors might indicate trauma, unaddressed mental health issues, or trouble at home. Implicit bias training — tackling unconscious attitudes and stereotypes that affect our thoughts and decisions — can also reduce student achievement gaps and ensure all children are set up to succeed.
- Eliminate overly harsh discipline policies and practices. Policies that automatically impose severe punishments on students, regardless of the circumstances underlying their behavior, increase suspension rates and place youth on a path to prison, poverty, or whatever vulnerability they face on the street. Instead of opting for punitive policies in response to misconduct, schools should help young people get the mental health resources they need to heal.
- Encourage student leadership and civic participation. Strong adult leadership is necessary for advancing safe, affirming school environments. Student leadership is also necessary. Young people have a lot of ideas about justice and fairness and how people should be treated. Giving them a voice and a chance to implement some of those ideas presents a real opportunity to drive culture and change.
We can no longer deny the fact that sexual harassment and violence are a reality for youth, particularly girls. Girls Inc. works with girls to advocate for safe, supportive school climates that are positive places for youth to learn and grow. Schools play a critical role in combating sexual harassment and violence, and equipping youth to lead healthy, prosperous lives. They need our support.