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Not just Hollywood: The Culture of Harassment in Schools

With movements like #metoo and #timesup, our culture is taking a long, hard look at sexual harassment and assault. Unfortunately, it's all too common--even at Dunbar

Julia Radhakrishnan, Abby Wheatley, Rebecca Chapman, Hannah Chambliss, and Peyton Humphreys, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

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Last October, it was revealed by the New York Times that at least 40 women claimed to be sexually harassed by renowned film producer Harvey Weinstein. As the story progressed, other producers and actors came forward with similar stories. Many other prominent Hollywood stars had been added to the growing list of people accused of sexual harassment.

These scandals reignited the #MeToo trend on social media. The idea for the movement originated in 1997 when civil rights activist Tarana Burke was inspired to create an advocacy campaign after speaking with a 13-year-old girl who had been sexually abused. Ten years later, Burke created Just Be Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps victims of sexual harassment and assault. Burke went on to create the “#MeToo” campaign in 2007.

In 2017, #MeToo was promoted by actress Alyssa Milano. The hashtag became a way for users to share their experiences of sexual violence and stand in solidarity with other survivors. In the first 24 hours alone, 12 million stories were shared via Facebook.

“I personally know a lot of Dunbar students who are participating in the #metoo movement,” said Dunbar senior Mackenzie Sorensen, who experienced sexual harassment as a middle-schooler.

“My family took a trip to Destin, and while there I was going to get ice for our room when some guy came out of his room a few doors down and cornered me. I was absolutely terrified because I had no idea what was really going on, and he kept trying to get me back into his room. I kept telling him ‘no, I don’t wanna go back into your room…’ But he kept being like ‘Come on, baby’ … My brother, thank God, he came out and he saw what they were doing and he grabbed me by the shoulder and took me away.”

Rape culture and sexual harassment do not exist solely within Hollywood or other big cities. In a poll given to 100 Dunbar students and teachers, both male and female, nearly 60 percent of respondents said that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

“In seeing on [social media] the #MeToo campaign, in the idea that it’s meant to show, ‘Look, this many people have been sexually assaulted’ … it just seems outrageous to me that something like this is happening so often to so many people … it’s disheartening,” said Dunbar English teacher Mr. Michael Mau.

 

A Dunbar teacher shared an example of harassment she experienced as a teenager. She asked to remain anonymous.

“My earliest memory of sexual harassment is at my first job in a little local restaurant and bar when I was 15. I was a hostess, and I wore jeans and a uniform t-shirt to work (not that I should have to explain what I was wearing, but I know that’s the first thing people wonder in our victim-blaming culture). I remember every day we had these two regular customers that would make open, sexual comments about my body as I worked, and I was too afraid to report it because they were regulars and the restaurant ‘didn’t want to lose their business.’ These were ‘good’ men–professionals, fathers of children not much younger than I was, church-goers. They ‘didn’t mean anything by it’ and were ‘just joking’, but none of that changed the fact that their comments made me absolutely ashamed of my body and made me dread going to work most days,” she said.

The unfortunate reality is that sexual harassment is a result of our culture and societal expectations. As a result, they do not disappear when a student walks through the doors of a school building. It’s also, arguably, a problem that seems to primarily affect females.

“People tell girls to ‘just let it go’ and ‘boys will be boys,’ so they shouldn’t think anything of it, but the truth is the fear and insecurity that sexual harassment causes follows women into adulthood and affects every aspect of their lives,” the anonymous teacher said.

Junior Hannah Broomhall is one such student who has experienced harassment in an academic setting.

“I was leaving rehearsal, and there was a group of guys in the music hallway. It was late and I was the only one out there. One of them shouted, ‘Damn, girl, you got a man?’ I replied with a quick ‘Yes,’ and I walked away as fast as possible, eyes glued to the floor. Then, one of the other people in the group made a comment about my butt, and all his friends laughed,” she said.

 

Broomhall’s experience is a classic example of catcalling. Catcalling is defined as “a loud, sexually suggestive call or comment directed at someone publicly” and is not only offensive, but also illegal in many parts of the world, including New York, according to the Washington Post.

Ms. Andrea Tinsley, associate principal at Dunbar, said that she sees many reports of harassment via the school’s anonymous tip line.

“We never discount what anybody says,” she said. “We take all allegations of bullying and harassment very seriously.”

In the student handbook, instances of bullying can result in a warning, a referral to the school’s behavior coach, or more depending on the severity. When administrators handle this type of case, they also call parents to explain the situation.

“We handle every situation,” said Ms. Betsy Rains, head principal. “No matter what.”

But this only works if the harassment is reported. As with many cases, Broomhall chose not to report her experience to school authorities, so no action was taken on her behalf.

If students do speak up, they often receive negative feedback from their peers.

“I remember a couple of years ago I was sitting in class and this boy kept making sexual slurs and gestures towards me. It got to the point where I, for some reason, felt ashamed and embarrassed,” said an anonymous Dunbar student. “I eventually told my parents and they told the school. The boy ended up switching classes, but everyone thought that I was a snitch because I told on him.”

Another student who asked to remain anonymous shared her story of the type of sexual harassment she experiences this year as a student aide. She said that she did not report this harassment for fear of not being believed, or being accused of “deserving it.”

“I run a lot of errands, so I walk around a lot and because of that I get harassed a lot. I’ve had guys chase me down the hallway to ask me out or to say something about my body,” she said. “Once, I entered a classroom and this guy came up to me and asked if I was single and when I said no… he stood in front of me to try and give me his number. He wouldn’t let me leave until, finally, the teacher looked up.”

For many, another hurdle to reporting harassment is that those who witness the harassment do nothing to intervene. This is called the “bystander effect.” The same student recounted another incident she experienced in which she was harassed in front of others who did nothing to assist her.

“Another time I was walking down the hallway to class from the bathroom, and a guy yelled ‘hey mommy’ and he touched his penis,” she said. “There were girls around, and instead of speaking up for me, they just laughed.”

Harassment in the school system is an issue that can, and must, be addressed. One possible solution is the Green Dot Program created by Dr. Dorothy Edwards, founder and president of Alteristic, and the mother of a Dunbar alum. This program trains bystanders to be “Green Dots” and to divert victims from the situation, eliminating the possibility of an assault or worse.

“If [a bystander] sees someone being harassed, whether it be based on race, sexual orientation, or gender, Green Dot trains students to use redirection. Bystanders are instructed not talk to the harasser, but talk to the person being harassed,” said Dunbar English Teacher Mrs. Wendy Turner. “It de-escalates the situation, and it gets the victim out of harm’s way.”

In the case of the anonymous student, girls laughing at the harassment could have surrounded the student being harassed, removing her from the situation without even needing to address the harasser. This is what Green Dot trains bystanders to do.

Mrs. Turner and behavior specialist Mrs. Erin Adcock are currently working on securing grant money from Partners for Youth to implement Green Dot at Dunbar next year.

Teachers and students all agreed that there is a need for this type of targeted education. Schools can help alleviate these issues by implementing more programs like Green Dot, by allowing more training for both teachers and students, and by focusing on not only academics, but also curriculum that focuses on character education.

Mr. Mau said “If you are a confident person and are confident in who you are and are secure with yourself, then there’s no reason for you to act in a monstrous way to get someone’s attention. When people with low self-esteem get together, they bolster one another in order to [promote] that group hate, and so you know you’re going to get supported.”

If we’re going to change the culture, it needs to start early, and it needs to be authentic, real-world training, not just some PowerPoint or hokey presentation,” said a student who asked to remain anonymous.

“We have to address this and stop pretending that it doesn’t happen here at Dunbar. It does. It happens everywhere.”

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