Why Addressing Sexual Harassment in Middle School Is Vital | By: Jasmine Williams In the wake of movements like #MeToo that put a spotlight on sexual harassment and violence, the education space has seen an emergence of state standards supporting harassment prevention and teaching kids about consent. More conversations with students about personal responsibility, boundaries, and gender stereotypes are happening than ever before—from kindergarteners getting the choice between a high-five and a hug to middle school teachers pointing out an imbalance in gender dynamics in classrooms. Along with reinforcing a sense of personal empowerment, addressing sexual and gender-based harassment (harassment based on gender, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression) is a crucial part of sexual abuse prevention. By talking with middle schoolers about how to set and respect boundaries and taking reports of harassment seriously, educators can play a critical role in preventing both victimization and perpetration. Research About Sexual Harassment and Abuse While research about the connection between harassment and future violence is still in early stages, a 2018 study indicates that addressing sexual and gender-based harassment in middle school is not only developmentally appropriate, but critical for intervention. The study also suggests that preventing bullying and homophobic name-calling in middle school could help prevent future sexual violence1—nearly 36 percent of sexual abuse offenders are older children or teenagers 2. Another 2018 study indicates that adolescence is a key time to combat gender stereotypes and suggests that sexual violence prevention efforts should directly address harmful attitudes about traditional masculinity, pro-violence attitudes, and dismissiveness of sexual harassment.3 Beyond “Bad Behavior” Sexual and gender-based harassment can include spreading sexual rumors, unwanted touching, and homophobic name-calling—and it can happen to students of any gender identity or sexual orientation. Dismissing these forms of harassment as merely “inappropriate” or “bad behavior” undercuts the severity of the issue. Conveying to students that they have a legal right not to be harassed and a responsibility not to harass others is important for developing students’ sense of personal agency as well as establishing broader accountability and protections. Educators also need to understand student protections under Title IX and what constitutes sexual harassment. Defining Harassment and Taking Action Encourage your middle school students not only to take note of when they’re uncomfortable with someone else’s behavior, but to recognize and respect when their peers are uncomfortable too. Make sure students know you’re available to talk and help them with these kinds of safety issues. Grade 8, Lesson 25 of the Second Step middle school curriculum program focuses on the topic of sexual harassment and helps students: Define sexual harassment Recognize the differences between sexual harassment and flirting Understand that peer-to-peer sexual harassment can happen to anyoneThink about the effects of harassment Know where they can go for help if they witness or experience harassmentRecognize that sexual harassment is serious and against the law The program also includes advisory activities focused on gender-based harassment, disrespect, and acceptable behaviors in dating relationships. Sexual Harassment “Hot Spots” Most kids experience harassment in areas that aren’t closely monitored by adults—places like hallways, cafeterias, and bus stops. We call these “hot spots” for bullying and harassment. Resources for Middle School Teachers, Educators, and Families April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. At HotChocolateTalk.org, educators can encourage families to talk to children about sexual abuse prevention at home, and families can find tips for talking with preteens and teenagers about sexuality and consent, boundaries, and standing up for others. Fiction and nonfiction books that deal with themes of sexuality, sexual assault, consent, and personal empowerment are another tool educators and families can use to support middle schoolers as they navigate social situations that require a strong sense of personal agency. Sexual and gender-based harassment can be difficult subjects to broach, but abuse thrives on silence. By taking harassment seriously, educators and families help empower students to address issues related to dating, gender dynamics, and consent, and avoid becoming victims or perpetrators of sexual abuse. Author Jasmine D. Williams, PhD, is a research scientist at Committee for Children who contributes to the Second Step Middle School Program. Research References Espelage, D. L., Basile, K. C., Leemis, R. W., Hipp, T. N., & Davis, J. P. (2018). Longitudinal examination of the bullying-sexual violence pathway across early to late adolescence: Implicating homophobic name-calling. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47(9), 1880–1893. doi: 10.1007/s10964-018-0827-4Finkelhor, D., Ormrod, R., & Chaffin, M. (2009). Juveniles who commit sex offenses against minors. Juvenile Justice Bulletin. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/227763.pdfEspelage, D. L., Basile, K. C., Lemis, R. W., Hipp, T. N., & Davis, J. P. Bullying and sexual violence among early adolescents: The moderating role of traditional masculinity, dismissiveness, and dominance. Manuscript in preparation.