Hostile hallways: sexual harassment and bullying in school


So the burning question among parents shouldn’t be, “When do we have the talk about safe sex?” but “When and how do we teach our kids about preventing sexual harassment?”

News reports of sexual harassment have become a category of its own. As victims begin to come forth you can’t help but wonder just how deep it runs throughout our culture. We tend to categorize sexual harassment as occurring mainly in the “workplace,” no matter the industry. However, we do know it can happen during an interview, in a store, waiting at a red light, restaurant, airport, hence any public place and at work. The disclosures of sexually related crimes on college campuses have lead to an overhaul of the “No Means No” policing and policy-making.

So the obvious question becomes – how badly has sexual harassment impacted our younger students? If it has taken so many of these adult victims so long to come forth, we must ensure that our students know exactly where they stand and what they need to do if they are ever in these situations.

Students of all ages must be empowered with information so there is no misunderstanding of actions which may preclude them from coming forth and reporting an incident.

Despite headlines that label all harassment in schools as bullying, there is a difference between sexual harassment and bullying. And it’s an important one. When schools, the media and the public mislabel sexual harassment as bullying, they negate the role that sex and gender play in the abusive behavior.

Bullying is not based on a student’s sex; sexual harassment is. There are many pathetic “reasons” why students are bullied. However, their victimization is not based on their sex (or other protected classes such as race, religion or disability). Most significantly, bullying is not a violation of federal and state civil rights laws–but sexual harassment is.

Using the term “bullying” when a student is sexually harassed decreases safety for girls (in particular) and LGBT students, de-genders the misconduct and diminishes the likelihood that students’ civil rights will be protected. As a result, school officials fail in their responsibility to create a safe and equitable school environment based on Title IX requirements.

Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.”

It’s imperative that our kids understand sexual harassment and that it can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:

● Verbal harassment, including comments, rumors, catcalls or jokes.
● Cyber harassment – posts on social media, text messaging and email.
● Physical harassment, such as unwanted touching or kissing.
● Nonverbal harassment, including gestures, writing sexually explicit things about someone.
● Unwanted behavior, such as repeatedly asking someone on a date when they’ve said no, following or stalking.
● The victim as well as the harasser may be female or male. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
● The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
● The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
● Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
● The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.

Sadly enough, sexual harassment is part of life in middle and high schools. Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures) made up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment is far too common. Sexual harassment by text, e-mail, and social media platforms is the fastest means of contact. Interestingly, many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace were also sexually harassed in person.

One thing kids need to learn early on as well is to speak up when they see sexual harassment occur. Just because it isn’t happening to them doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. This is yet another opportunity for kids to look out for one another and get help for each other. This way, they continue to learn to lead with integrity and stand up to negative behaviors.

This column is by Ritchie Lucas, Founder of The Student Success Project and Think Factory Marketing. He can be reached at 305-788-4105 or via email at and on Facebook and You Tube as The Student Success Project.

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