How middle and high school students perceive the role of school personnel in addressing peer sexual harassment
Peer sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in our schools. Yet, students rarely turn to school personnel for help. Drawing on data from 335 interviews with middle and high school students from eight schools, this study explored how middle and high school students perceive and interpret the role of school personnel in addressing peer sexual harassment.
This study reveals that students embed the responses of school personnel to peer sexual harassment in a larger school culture influenced by gender norms, assumptions and expectations. The findings contribute to our understanding of the systemic problems inherent in schools involving peer sexual harassment and the adult responses to it. This study places peer sexual harassment on a continuum with other forms of gender based violence and other forms of sex discrimination.
Four themes emerge from this study: (1) peer sexual harassment is a common occurrence in schools and students believe that school officials do little to stop it; (2) students believe that the behaviors of school personnel regarding peer sexual harassment support the continuance of the harassment; (3) systemic barriers exist that interfere with student reporting; (4) students want school personnel stop peer sexual harassment and change the culture that feeds it.
This study identifies nine conclusions: (1) Students believe that school officials are not helpful in stopping peer sexual harassment; (2) Students believe that school personnel avoid naming sexual harassing behavior as such; (3) By “prenaming”, students believe that school personnel contribute to the “normalization” of peer sexual harassment; (4) Students attribute peer sexual harassment, in part, to the gender biased attitudes of school personnel which interfere with their responsibilities to create and maintain safe schools; (5) The most common role for school personnel with respect to peer sexual harassment is one of “Hands-off ” or “Bump and run;” (6) School personnel apply a double standard to student conduct that gives boys the liberty to engage in sexually harassing behaviors and often requires girls to adapt to the boys' behavior; (7) Students want school personnel to stop peer sexual harassment; (8) School personnel responses to peer sexual harassment when they witness it and to the students who report it are deterrents to the systematic reporting of peer sexual harassment; and (9) Students want school officials to educate the whole school community about peer sexual harassment, its impact on them and school consequences for this conduct.
The implications for policy, practice and future research are many. The recommendations of the students are appropriate and make sense. Most importantly, students want adults to pay attention to what is happening to them, to take peer sexual harassment seriously and to accept responsibility for maintaining safe school environments.