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Researcher Nan Stein Discusses Sexual Harassment In Schools

The increasing frequency and severity of sexual harassment in schools was the topic of a BookTalk in April featuring author Nan Stein. Stein, who is a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, discussed her recent book Classrooms and Courtrooms: Facing Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools.

According to Stein, sexual harassment, which she defines as gender violence acted out in public, has damaging and far-reaching effects that may not be immediately obvious to educators.

Incidents like those documented at a single New York City high school last month-where allegedly over a period of a few months a 9-year-old girl was raped and sodomized by two 12-year-old boys and a male student sexually abused a female student-hurt more than just the individuals immediately involved.

Stein theorizes that schools are the training ground for domestic violence. If sexual harassment goes unchecked, girls and boys form improper attitudes toward these situations that last throughout their lives.

"The public nature of sexual harassment may have a more damaging effect than private acts of harassment," Stein said. "When it happens in public, it becomes the social norm."

Recent developments have placed greater responsibility on teachers and school administrators to prevent sexual harassment in schools. The Supreme Court ruled in May of last year that schools are ultimately responsible for the sexual harassment that occurs there.

This precedent has opened the door for numerous lawsuits against schools. Stein has studied many of these suits and has discovered patterns that can help schools prevent harassment and avoid litigation.

The first is that there is no immunizing against liability. Videos or other expensive products won't keep the school from being sued, though administrators often think having the equipment is enough.

Stein also discovered that individuals in certain jobs are more likely to be involved in sexual harassment incidents than the average teacher or administrator. Music or band teachers, coaches, and drama and photography teachers are particularly prone to being involved in these situations. Stein explained that because these people bring prestige to the community they are often hired with less scrutiny than other teachers might be. These teachers also have access to scholarship opportunities, giving them power over their students' futures.

The nature of the relationship between students and these teachers is different. "Kids expect to be pushed beyond their normal limits by these teachers," Stein said. "This type of interaction may move the student-teacher relationship beyond its normal boundaries."

Regarding touch, Stein said the lawsuits show that teachers shouldn't give back rubs or neck rubs to students, or allow a child to sit on their lap. This is a bigger issue in the primary grades where the children often seek physical closeness with their teachers. Stein suggested that teachers let the children sit next to them instead of on their laps.

In addition, the lawsuits show a pattern of duplicity on the part of school administrators. Administrators will often "pass on" molesters to other schools without disclosing fully what has happened.

"Because they are afraid of being sued by the teacher, administrators often speak in code that they think other administrators will understand," Stein explained.

Stein outlined some precautions schools should take to prevent sexual harassment and the lawsuits that are becoming more common. These include providing age-appropriate classroom education and extensive training for the entire staff; designating a man and a woman in each area of the school as the "omsbud"; responding compassionately to the harasser; and involving parents in the process.

"I propose a program of zero indifference toward sexual harassment in our schools," Stein said. "I'm absolutely against ignoring the behavior. We must instead draw attention to it and correct it."

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