As you may have already heard, The American Association of University Women surveyed 1,965 students and found that nearly half of both boys and girls in grades 7 through 12 reported experiencing sexual harassment at school, defined by the researchers as “unwelcome sexual behavior” and including everything from sexual comments to being physically intimidated in a sexual way. (See the “Motherlode” blog in the NYTimes for a good summary: http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/08/handling-sexual-harassment-in-schools/). Boys were most troubled by the same kind of harassment found in any survey about bullying: taunts about being gay. For young women, though, what bothered them most was something different, and far less likely to be covered under the common rubric of the bullying prevention program: unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures.
I believe that both sexual harassment and bullying are really part of a larger issue for our children: the climate in our schools and the culture in which our children are learning and growing. While social cruelty in any form must be addressed head on, most bullying and sexual harassment by students begins in smaller forms, as our children try to figure out who they are as individuals and social beings.
Social cruelty in any form will thrive at school unless we can create a culture which develops empathy in our children and builds social capital for kids who choose to be a good friend and a positive member of the school community. Building a positive culture at school involves creating strong partnerships with parents. It requires parents to support teachers and other educators in the work of helping to develop the social and emotional intelligence of their children, and not to respond with a “not my child” reaction when teachers are trying to do this work.
It also requires teachers to be trained to do this work, and to be supported by parents and administrators. It requires teachers, administrators and parents to model positive behavior, and nurture empathy. It also requires each of us to call our children on the “little things”…those little acts of exclusion or meanness that might seem inconsequential but can lead to bullying or harassment in the future if left without response and consequence in the present. In many ways, these behaviors are developmentally appropriate, but that doesn’t mean we can or should ignore them.
School climate is a big issue and requires big solutions. Anti-Bullying or Anti-Harassment curricula can only go so far. Unless a child receives little or no social benefit from this negative behavior, it will continue. To build a culture in school and at home where social cruelty, exclusion, and meanness have no place and provide little or no payoff to kids is an onerous goal, but I believe such a systemic approach to addressing this negative behavior it is the only solution to these vexing problems. Our current focus on the reporting of bullying when it occurs and the management of such incidents is important, but it does not begin to address the underlying issues. It is like approaching health and wellness by crafting better emergency room procedures. We need to get at the root of the problem, and the root of this problem is climate and culture. Imagine how much more learning could take place at schools in which children truly feel emotionally and physically safe?