When journalist Wendy Lu contacted me to be interviewed for an article in The New York Times on K-12 sexual harassment and assault, I jumped at this amazing opportunity. As many of you may know, I’ll be going off to college soon, but my activism to combat K-12 sexual harassment and assault will continue.
Thank you very much, Wendy, for writing this important article and for including my work in it. You may read the article on The New York Times website or right here.
By Wendy Lu April 19, 2018
When the #MeToo movement exploded on social media in October, the reaction among Maddy Eichenberg’s female-identifying friends at school was, “Yeah, this is pretty much our reality.”
“It’s just something high school girls know they have to deal with,” said Ms. Eichenberg, 18, a senior at Lexington High School in Lexington, Mass., and the co-president of her school’s Intersectional Feminism Club. “A lot of female friend groups have a list of — or know about — high school boys who they know have been treating women in a gross way, and make sure their friends stay away from them.”
While the #MeToo movement has largely focused on adult perpetrators, children and adolescents who engage in sexual harassment, bullying and abuse can also leave their victims with deep and lasting scars. Experts say today’s murky consent culture prevails in adulthood because these behaviors aren’t being addressed in childhood — a pivotal time when kids are learning social norms and developing their sense of identity.
Research shows that 43 percent of middle school students experience sexual harassment from their peers. And a third of teenagers report experiencing relationship abuse. Rates may be even higher in kids with disabilities and those who identify as L.G.B.T.Q.
Instead of waiting to have “the talk” until adults think it’s age-appropriate, consent education should start at the earliest age possible and remain a constant lesson through childhood and adolescence, said Jett Bachman, a youth educator at Day One, a nonprofit organization that works with youth to promote healthy relationships and end dating abuse.
For kids in elementary school, Mx. Bachman said incorporating the word “consent” into their vocabulary will encourage them to apply it to all areas of their lives. In learning to ask permission to use a classmate’s toy, for instance, they learn that all people have a right to their belongings and their own private space. By the time they reach their teens, these lessons can be extended to their relationships.
At Lexington High, Ms. Eichenberg and her classmates are working with the school administration to update the curriculums for their health classes to include more modules on consent and sexual harassment. New lessons include how to gauge consent based on nonverbal cues and how to advocate for yourself when you’re in an uncomfortable situation and need to find a way out safely.
“People always say students in high school or middle school or elementary school are too young to learn about sex or any kind of sexual interaction, but it’s happening,” Ms. Eichenberg said. “Middle and high schoolers are going to be in situations where they’ll have to decide for themselves if they’re comfortable.”
The efforts of Ms. Eichenberg and her classmates are just one part of a growing MeTooK12 movement to spread awareness of sexual violence among young people.
The group posts stories on Instagram weekly to raise awareness of how pervasive the problem is at their school. In one post, a student wrote about a boy in math class who kept asking for sexual favors: “He kept asking and he made me feel guilty for saying no. When I went to the bathroom with him he told me what to do, and when I didn’t want to, he blocked my exit to the door …”
In Osprey, Fla., Minnah Stein, a senior at Pine View School, has been organizing documentary screenings and other programs to teach students in her school district about sexual violence and their Title IX rights, which legally protect them from discrimination on the basis of gender in educational settings. So far, about 2,500 students in her county have participated in her sexual violence prevention programs.
“This is the most pressing civil rights issue of my generation,” Ms. Stein, 17, said.
Abusive behavior is often modeled after what kids see in the media, in adult interactions or elsewhere in their environment, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in sexual violence prevention and a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Sexual harassment and bullying can lead to even more abusive behavior if it’s not stopped early on, she says, causing a ripple effect as generations of young people grow older.
Challenges arise in part because from a very early age, research shows, children are socialized to behave according to their gender. Girls, for example, are often taught to be modest and may feel flattered when boys tease them. Boys are more likely to be taught to hold in their feelings, and to be aggressive in the pursuit of a crush and push boundaries.
This kind of gender stereotyping can become an indirect link to more problematic behaviors like sexual harassment, said Dr. Jeglic, and be harmful for kids of all ages and genders. If parents, teachers or other guardians suspect that children in their care are experiencing sexual harassment, bullying or abuse from their peers, she said, it’s important to validate their experience, listen to what they have to say and help them understand what happened.
Esther Warkov, executive director and co-founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, the nonprofit group that started the MeTooK12 campaign in January, said that schools should train staff members to address a wide range of behaviors that constitute inappropriate sexual behavior, from body shaming to subtle sexual gestures or sounds. To help prevent future instances of harassment, student perpetrators may be recommended for counseling, community service working directly with survivors of sexual violence, or workshops on gender-based discrimination.
Last year, Sophie Chong, 17, a senior on the track team at Lexington High, overheard her male teammates complaining that they thought the female athletes weren’t as hardworking and didn’t have to put in as much effort as the boys because the height of their hurdles was lower.
“Even though it might start out as a little thing like sexism or a power play between males and females, it’s definitely going to develop into something bigger like sexual harassment that we see today in multiple industries,” said Ms. Chong, a member of her school’s Intersectional Feminism Club. “It’s about getting to the root of the problem.”