Last spring, Cambridge Rindge and Latin high school students staged a walkout protesting what they described as a culture of sexual violence.
Many carried handmade signs: “I am catcalled and groped in the hallways.” “I have been called bitch, whore, and slut by other students in class.” The students presented the administration with 13 ideas for protocols and programs to make school safer.
A pervasive culture of sexual violence permeates American high schools. More than half of high school girls are sexually harassed, according to a 2011 report by the American Association of University Women. Girls endure sexually crude jokes about their bodies, receive unwanted texted photos of private parts, face dogged sexual rumors, or are inappropriately touched against their will.
Sexual harassment negatively affects girls’ academic success. Students report trouble concentrating in class. They can’t sleep. Rates of depression go up, as do school absenteeism.
A culture of sexual violence starts by failing to address the small things — sexist jokes, catcalls, and demeaning language. Tolerating minor harassment opens the door to more abusive behavior.
Approximately 1 in 13 high school girls in Massachusetts reported being forced to have sex, according to a 2015 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 1 in 10 high school girls who dated reported experiencing physical violence; 1 in 9 reported experiencing sexual violence.
Yet, high school sexual violence and harassment remains staggeringly underreported — the 2011 AAUW report found that, of girls who experienced harassment, only 1 in 8 told school staff. Why do so few report? Some are scared to be labeled a snitch and ostracized by friends, others feel nothing will be done, so why come forward. Still more worry about parents or the police becoming involved.
The disparaging comments of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign prompted hundreds of thousands of women to share stories of harassment and abuse.
Colleges began seriously tackling sexual violence when collegiate women started speaking out. Can high school students help lead the charge in stopping violence in high schools?
In Melrose, 19 high school student leaders design and teach classes to freshmen on recognizing and intervening in cases of sexual violence. A recent class began with the following scenario: You are sitting at school and a girl walks by wearing a tight skirt. Your friends start making rude jokes. She looks upset. What do you do? Join in? Apologize to her later? Distract your friends? Report the incident? Together the students talk through the options.
In 2012, the nonprofit Melrose Alliance Against Violence and the high school were awarded a three-year federal grant from the US Department of Justice, geared toward reducing teen-dating violence and sexual assault — one of nine grants given across the country. As part of the project, the alliance and the school partnered with Northeastern University’s Mentors in Violence Prevention program. Together they trained the Student Action Board, which runs the freshman classes. In addition, they have trained students on how not to be bystanders and created and implemented a policy guidebook, training school staff in how to recognize, respond, and report dating violence or sexual harassment.
In 2015 the attorney general’s office and the New England Patriots Charitable Foundation established and committed $650,000 to “Game Change: The Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership,” a statewide initiative to tackle teen dating violence. Last year, the program trained staff from 90 public high schools across the state (approximately one-fifth of the state’s public high schools) in the Northeastern curriculum of facilitated real-life scenarios and discussions about sexual violence. This fall, they began training roughly 1,000 students from 34 high schools to be peer mentors.
In addition, there are 16 Massachusetts rape crisis centers, some of which collaborate with local schools to offer professional training.
If schools are serious about tackling sexual violence, they need a two-pronged strategy.
First, schools need in-depth, ongoing training for all students and staff on how to treat others respectfully and how to speak out in defense of others. Second, schools need to develop school-wide strategies and policies for preventing and addressing violence.
Just weeks after the Cambridge students walked out, the city’s mayor established a Committee on Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Prevention. Representatives from the students, city council, school committee, local nonprofits, and the school department have been meeting monthly to discuss how to change the culture.
Ending sexual violence in schools across the Commonwealth will require a similar coalition. Perhaps the charge will be led by students themselves.
Jessica Lander is a teacher and writer living in the Boston area.