by Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters
Sexual abuse and molestation present a significant and growing concern in our schools and communities. Unfortunately, inappropriate touching, sexting, porn, grooming, date rape, and other forms of sexual abuse are becoming more incessant. Educators, law enforcement and legislators are struggling to find solutions to this disturbing trend.
While some instances of sexual assault clearly go unreported, the AP found 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults at schools between 2011-15. Some of the assaults that happen at schools are caused by teachers or staff, while roughly 20% of educators also suffer sexual harassment or assaults.
Often, the reaction to these troubling issues has led to harsher laws and policies, along with increased consequences, all of which have not proven entirely effective in solving the problem. What has proven to be successful is a multi-tiered approach that includes engaging all school stakeholders – staff, families and students – and implementing prevention-based education initiatives with clear policies and practices that are restorative.
All school staff can benefit from further education about sexual harassment so they are better prepared to identify and address it. Clear understanding of the difference between bullying and sexual harassment and assault can better equip educators to deal appropriately with the issue, explain the difference to students, and support students in coming forward with their experiences.
Additionally, families need to be educated and supported in understanding the issues more clearly, to learn the most effective ways to communicate with their children and the steps to take when their children tell them about any concerns they have.
A third and critical stakeholder that is often overlooked are the students. Engaging and empowering students is very effective because they are often in the best position to prevent, stop and report incidents of sexual inappropriateness. Students see, hear and know things adults don’t and they can intervene in ways that adults can’t. They are generally aware of any incidents before adults are informed. These factors put students on the “front lines”, where they have tremendous power in setting social norms of kindness, connectivity, and the courage to speak up, all of which contribute greatly to having a safer school with a positive climate.
Here are some specific actions students can take to prevent and address sexual misconduct:
1. Notice and identify what is happening and think about the harmful effects it may cause. When students have increased awareness of the covert and overt ways sexual misconduct occurs, they are more able to identify it and willing to take action.
2. Recognize and determine the type of misconduct, the severity, who is involved, and the environment in which the incident is happening. Assessing and discerning the situation helps to determine the appropriate action to take and whether it should be reported.
3. Reach out and befriend a fellow student who may be targeted. These students are most vulnerable and likely to be subjected to manipulation and mistreatment. By creating connections, students show their support and model positive behavior to their peers that demonstrates a culture of looking out for one another.
4. Be an upstander, not a bystander. By speaking up and acting, students model positive peer pressure and their actions indicate that sexual misconduct is not acceptable on campus.
5. Reach out to a trusted adult and report potentially dangerous situations. Helping a student who is at risk and might otherwise not seek help can help ensure that the student gets the support they need before the situation worsens.
Young people are in a unique and vital position to make a positive impact in preventing and stopping sexual misconduct. We believe that students at all levels hold the key! They are ready to serve as change agents and upstanders in their schools and communities. When they become concerned, they want to do the right thing. What the evidence tells us, is when we engage, equip and empower young people, they can and will play a critical role in looking out for each other, resulting in safer schools and communities.
When we utilize a multi-tiered systemic approach, one that engages and empowers the whole school community, we significantly increase the likelihood of reducing and stopping incidents of sexual misconduct in schools and we keep our children and young people safe.