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Sexual harassment among students hard to define, harder to control*


We’ve all seen it: students bumping into each other in the hallway on the way to class. A boy will grab a girl and she yells at him to get off of her, or maybe just keeps walking. A boy hugs a girl from behind and she giggles but struggles to get loose. Does she feel harassed or does she like it?

According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, sexual harassment is “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” This can mean touching, comments, jokes, gestures, written messages, and any name calling of a sexual nature, and is prohibited under Title IX. It is hard to define generally, more easily identified by the gut-feelings of a victim.

Sexual harassment is a Tier IV behavior in DCPS’s Chapter 25 and the consequence is out-of-school suspension anywhere from 11 to 45 days.  If it happens twice, the student is supposed to be expelled. This is excerpted in the student agenda given to us at the beginning of the year, but the behaviors are not reviewed with students.  Dean of Sophomores Mark Martin said that no student has faced these consequences during his seven years here.

According to a nation-wide survey in 2011 conducted by the American Association of University Women, 48 percent of 1,965 students grades 7 through 12 said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the last school year, and 87 percent said it had a negative impact on them. Most of them were girls.

There has not been a study at Wilson on sexual harassment. But all of the girls I asked here said they have either seen it or experienced it firsthand, mostly in the form of boys calling girls names, catcalling, or grabbing them.

“I’m walking down the hall and there’s a hand out of nowhere,” said senior Aminah Carroll. “I always want to be like ‘no means no, creep.’”

Many girls I talked to recounted similar stories. Jennifer Satlin, who teaches ESL and SAT Prep, did not know about it being a Tier IV behavior.  She has had girls talk to her about being harassed. “[They] don’t even know who grabbed them half of the time because the hallways are so crowded,” she said.  

Senior Amara Evering said she got catcalled often as an underclassman. Even though many girls can just brush it off, she sees the presumed dominance that guys have as an issue that needs to be addressed. Isabella Barnes, also a senior, said catcalling is such a regular occurrence that teachers seem used to it or just focus on other things.

When I asked junior Julian Cole whether he notices sexual harassment at Wilson, he responded quickly, with an answer that was shockingly different from the girls. “Not around Wilson, no, not at all. There’s really no sexual harassment going on. The closest thing you’ll probably see is relationships. That’s about it.”

Sophomore Ayinde Hakim also said that sexual harassment doesn’t happen at Wilson. He defined it as being “uncomfortable with being intimate, like when someone is forcing someone into having intercourse with them and they don’t want to.”   

Senior Alex Velasquez found that while sexual harassment happens at Wilson, it is not a problem, as long as girls stand up for themselves. “Girls should just be aware of it and be like, ‘don’t touch me,’ really loudly so people know, like, not to do that,” he said. And with verbal harassment there are more things girls can do. “If you’re in the atrium and you hear a guy say ‘you have a nice a**’ or something, I hope she ignores him or hopefully takes it as a compliment,” Velasquez says.  

Referring to his friend group, Velazquez said it wouldn’t make sense for them to harass girls. “We’re all bae-d up right now,” he said. But even if they weren’t, if he saw his friend harass a girl, he would tell him to stop. “I would say that you can’t tap that. If you really could you would work for it or something. It’s not a good way to get girls.”

Senior Charlie Caspari felt differently. “Sexual harassment is a problem. Girls don’t know what to do to stand up for themselves. Well, some girls do, they’re like ‘Hey, shut the f*** up,’ but some aren’t, and they’re like, ‘oh, okay.’ It can hurt people’s feelings and just make them feel like you’re not valued, like you’re an object,” he said.

Jennifer Higgins, the school psychologist, said that many teachers might not know how to handle sexual harassment, so they look the other way. She also did not know about DCPS’s policy. But it might be difficult. “It is really clear cut in elementary school: like, just keep your hands to yourself. But in high school you expect students to be affectionate,” she said.

And students notice. “[The teachers] have other things they need to worry about: they need to grade, they need to pay attention to their class,” sophomore Lauren Brown said. Caspari said sexual harassment is more common in classes where the teaching is less effective in general, because guys know they can get away with it.  

No student has ever come to Higgins to complain about being sexually harassed.  But when she sees it, she will sometimes tell a harasser to knock it off. “I feel like I have to do something because if I just walk past and that girl feels like she’s not protected, then that puts me in a very bad position because I’m an adult and my job here is to make sure that everyone is safe,” she said.  

Higgins doesn’t always get involved because sexual harassment is hard to identify, especially when watching the interaction as an outsider. “If a boy is trying to hug a girl and she’s like ‘stop’ but she’s giggling, it’s hard to determine if he’s bothering her or if she’s just giggling because she’s nervous,” she explained.  

Satlin would intervene in that same scenario. “I don’t care who started it or if she’s laughing. If she says no, I stop it,” she said.  

When they do step in, these two adults also differ in where they direct their attention. Higgins focuses on the girls, telling them to be clear in how they respond to any attention they get. “The giggling might suggest that you like it,” she tells them.

She doesn’t want to ever blame girls for being harassed but thinks there are things that girls could learn to do to stand up for themselves. “They should say ‘I don’t like it when you grab me’ or something like that,” she said, but admitted this is not always easy to do. “It is really hard at any age to say to someone, ‘Don’t do that to me.’”

In contrast to Higgins’s approach, Satlin focuses on the boys. Although both sides are important, if you want to stop sexual harassment, the logical thing to do is talk to the ones who are responsible for the harassing, she explained.  

As a job counselor for teenagers in San Francisco during the 1990s, Satlin taught young men and women how to behave in the workplace. That was the only time when she was trained to deal with sexual harassment. “We taught young men the difference between a compliment to a friend and a comment to a stranger, especially if it was repeated,” she said. “We had to make sure that they were sensitive to how their comments were received even if their intentions were benevolent.”

Both Higgins and Satlin believe that a discussion about sexual harassment would benefit students and teachers. Higgins would separate the students by gender, get the boys’ perspective on what they think constitutes sexual harassment, and then tell them how the girls defined it. “I think they might be surprised that a lot of the things that they are doing are not cute or welcome,” she said.

And, if a student ever feels unsafe, she encourages them to come to the mental health team workers.

Satlin thinks the school should hold small assemblies with guest speakers teaching students the difference between harmless flirting and harassment. Senior Duyen Ngo agrees that teaching clearer messages around the issue might help. “I think people should talk more about it instead of thinking ‘oh, it’s just a normal thing; it’s how the world works.’ I honestly think guys think they are complimenting girls,” she said.  Satlin points to the dynamics of individual relationships as a factor, but also the way our society accepts it. Caspari said that some guys harass girls to be funny or impress their friends, but cited deeper, underlying reasons.

“A lot of it is because we live in a patriarchal society where people think that’s okay.” •