#MeToo in school: too many children are sexually harassed by classmates

When I was in the sixth grade, a boy I shall call Roger followed me into the walk-in closet at the back of our classroom nearly every day and grabbed my boobs. This rendezvous was never consensual.

The closet was where my orange school patrol belt and plastic helmet were kept, and I was allowed to go and retrieve them before leaving class five minutes early in order to attend to my patrolling duties. At that time of day, the other students in the class were typically running around, talking loudly, packing up their things. The teacher was preoccupied with end-of-the-day tasks. Meanwhile Roger was lying in wait, always with a shit-eating grin on his face as he watched me grow more and more nervous about what was about to happen.

I hadn’t thought about Roger in a while until the other day when I was passing by the elementary school at the end of my street. “Scoop!” I heard a boy’s voice say, followed by raucous exclamations and a girl’s voice protesting, “Stop it!”

I turned around and saw that, there in the center of a group of four boys, a girl of about eleven was slapping at one of them as he cupped his hands under her breasts and squeezed them – “Scoop!” Right there on a New York City street. I started walking towards them, calling – “Hey!” The boys laughed and scattered.

When I asked the girl if she wanted me to go with her to report the boys to someone at her school, she said no – actually, insisted no, and then begged me not to say anything to anyone, for this, she said, would “cause so much trouble”.

The #MeToo movement has inspired hundreds of children to come forward with stories of sexual harassment. Under that hashtag and its companion, #MeTooK12, children and teens have shared their experiences with abuse and harassment that has happened at their schools, acts perpetrated by teachers and administrators as well by as other students.

It is a hard truth to face, that children sometimes attack other children in this way. But they do. More than 45 years after the passage of Title IX, sexual harassment in schools is so common that a majority of students surveyed in studies say that they see it as something “normal,” a part of school life.

“I never think it’s a big thing because they do it to everyone,” said a 13-year-old girl in a 2014 study of 12-to-17 year olds in a midwestern city, accounting for why only a small fraction (12%) of girls ever report being sexually assaulted or harassed.

I never told anyone about Roger. I was mortified that he had singled me out for his ugly ritual. I didn’t want anyone thinking about my breasts, not any more than I suspected they were already. I had already been whispered at and leered at by grown men, as so many girls unfortunately are, and I didn’t want to bring the horror of that unwanted attention into the atmosphere of the classroom, or to be the one reveal that this was being done to me by a boy – a boy, one of those football-playing, Frisbee-catching creatures everyone seemed to think was so wonderful.

I could not have imagined having that conversation with my teacher, a proper Southern Christian lady, or even with my own, very liberal-minded, nurturing mom. It wasn’t something I had ever heard anyone talk about; I didn’t know that I had the right to talk about it. And I was afraid that everyone would laugh at me – not Roger, but me. Which probably would have happened. So I acquiesced to being Roger’s sexual object. He always grinned, during his flashes of groping, like he was enjoying getting away with something.

I was troubled and saddened, more than 40 years later, in doing interviews with hundreds of girls for my book American Girls, by how little had changed – in the psychology of silence foisted upon girls who are sexually harassed, in the fact that such harassment is so common for girls, now online as well as in real life.

While both girls and boys experience sexual harassment, studies show that girls are more often the victims. For LGBTQ kids it is even more common. Girls are also more likely to be negatively affected than boys, with outcomes including loss of sleep, school absenteeism, anxiety, depression and falling academic performance. And I think there is something even worse to consider: the conditioning of girls to be accepting of sexual violence.

Three years after Roger, when a freshman at the University of Miami raped me in his dorm room, I reacted in much the same way – essentially submitted to it, turning my face away, telling no one about it afterward. After all, I worried, had it really been my fault? I and my 14-year-old girlfriends weren’t supposed to be hanging out on the University of Miami campus, or going up to college boys’ rooms. Might I not be the one to be blamed, and to get in trouble for it?

Fewer than half of states in the US now require schools to educate students about consent

I wonder if I would have reacted differently in the moment had I been educated about exactly what was going on, or schooled in how I might respond to it differently, or informed of what my rights and options were in the aftermath of the assault.

Fewer than half of states now require schools to educate students about consent. Sex education programs most often offer units on biology, on the prevention of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. And while there is now a push by advocacy groups to put pressure on schools to start dealing with the issue of sexual coercion, institutions tend to change at a glacial pace.

As of now, the majority of schools also don’t require any discussion of the very related subject of healthy relationships – so relevant in an era in which children at younger ages are being exposed to sexually charged scenarios involving other kids and even strangers on social media.

“There are very few schools I come across that are doing anything on this subject whatsoever, whether it’s talking about consent as a general concept, or practically, what the tools look like to practice consent,” Tahir Anderson Duckett, the executive director of ReThink, a group that works with teachers to prevent sexual violence, told Education Week. “It’s really a vacuum. And when you look at what information is going to fill that vacuum, you should get uneasy really quickly.”

I told the girl I saw being sexually assaulted outside the school on my block the things I wish someone had said to me, more than 40 years ago: “No one is allowed to do that to you. Anyone who does that is wrong – they’re committing a crime. I wish you would let me tell someone – how about if I don’t say your name, and just say their names … are you OK?”

She reminded me so much of myself at that age when she just tossed her head and said, “Yeah, it’s no big deal. I’m fine.” And she walked away. The next time you hear someone question whether we should teach kids about consent, or say the #MeToo movement has “gone too far,” please think of her.

  •  Nancy Jo Sales is the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers