Countless sexual assault cases have been in the news recently, especially those which lead to university investigations and Title IX violations. The problems that have been high-profile in the campus sexual assault arena are not only issues that exist within higher education, but are also prevalent within our general society.
Little has been done to combat it. The failure of primary and secondary schools to address sexual harassment and assault in grades K-12 mirrors the failure to address it in society as a whole. However, California’s new sexual health education law, designed for grades 7-12, requires schools to address troubling attitudes about gender and power, which experts say contribute to sexual harassment and even assaults on college campuses. Moreover, this important law will provide schools with the opportunity for students to have an open and meaningful conversation about healthy relationships and body image, and fosters a curriculum that positively affirms gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
This new law has the power to confront previously unaddressed sexual harassment and assault incidents in K-12 schools, which are the training grounds for college sexual assaults. While some people may think that harassment does not begin until students reach late teens or adulthood, in a 2011 national study conducted by the American Association of University Women, 48 percent of 2,000 seventh to twelfth graders surveyed experienced some form of harassment based on their gender during the school year. Examples of the harassment experienced included unwelcome sexual comments and gestures, being touched in an unwelcome way and being forced to do something sexual. Students who engage in such behavior are likely to have issues with gender and power, which may include a personal or cultural belief that men should hold a dominant position over women in society, or a conviction that gender roles must be strictly defined. Those beliefs, according to researcher Dorothy Espelage from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, are “associated with higher rates of sexual harassment.”
Ideas about power and gender come to the forefront in middle school when students take note of their relative status as social and sexual beings. According to the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Espelage surveyed 1,000 fifth, sixth, and seventh grade students, and found that the combination of high bullying rates and high rates of homophobic name-calling was a predictive indicator of which middle school boys were more likely to sexually harass other students. These findings may not imply that bullying directly leads to rape, but certainly suggest the need for schools to explicitly address and forbid sexual and gender-based harassment.
Sexual harassment and assault is against the law in federally funded schools under Title IX, yet most people associate this piece of legislation with sports, and do not know that it also applies to sexual assault and harassment. As noted by Brett Sokolow, executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, enforcement of Title IX in K-12 schools is poor. Sokolow estimates that about 85 percent of school district nationwide are out of compliance with the law. Yet, schools are obligated to act if they are aware of an act of sexual violence, and must take immediate action to address the harassment or assault, prevent its recurrence and acknowledge its effects. Currently, about 90 Title IX sexual violence investigations are underway nationwide in elementary and secondary school districts, including seven in California. Examples of these Title IX complaints filed between 2012 and 2015 at various California schools include a high school girl describing a male putting his hand down the front of her shirt, a middle school parent’s statement that when her daughter alerted the principal to unwanted sexual touching, the principal asked her what she was wearing, and perhaps most shockingly, the account of a fifth grade boy following two female students around the playground while shouting comments about their bodies and what sexual acts he would perform on them.
This new California sexual health education law would allow schools to be a place where teachers, administrators, and staff could discuss with students in age-appropriate ways about gender equality, sexual harassment and how to give consent. This new piece of legislation, in conjunction with another new law requiring curriculum affirmative consent to be taught to high school students as part of a health class for a graduation requirement, addresses the growing need for conversations about gender and power in K-12 classrooms. These pertinent discussions are key ways to confront troubling attitudes about gender inequality and sexual harassment and assault that are part of the underlying causes of sexual violence in K-12 schools and college campuses.
Julia Lawler is a senior majoring in history and social science education. Her column, “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.