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“Showing Too Much Thigh”: Sexual Harassment in Schools

My 14 year-old niece’s school recently instructed her and her classmates to ensure the lengths of their skirts were in line with uniform regulations. This was premised on the need to avoid “compromising male staff and students” by “showing too much thigh” while “walking upstairs or even just sitting down”. A similarly worded email was later sent to parents. This use of victim blaming as justification for uniform rules angers me because it reinforces gender inequality and provides an excuse for sexual harassment. Moreover, it demonstrates the absolute necessity for an overhaul of attitudes and practices if we are to put a stop to sexual harassment in schools.

In March, many in the education community welcomed the news that Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) will be compulsory in all schools from 2019. However, since then, campaigning for a shift in the attitudes and practices of schools, has quietened down. It seems that the SRE curriculum will attempt to prepare young people to recognise the traits of healthy relationships within a modern context. Despite this, statutory guidance for whole-school policies and initial teacher training to tackle attitudes to school-based sexual harassment has fallen by the wayside.  Compulsory SRE is a step in the right direction, but does not go far enough to prevent and address sexual harassment that occurs in school. School policies, practices and teacher training also need to play their part if we are going to tackle sexual harassment head-on.

Unfortunately, my 14 year-old niece’s experience is not an isolated incident. It is symptomatic of the pervasive normalisation of sexual harassment in schools and wider society (as explored herehere and here).

Such attitudes are not without consequence. Research from Pryor found that men with negative attitudes towards women are more likely to be sexual harassers. Furthermore, research suggests there is a link between non-reporting and the normalisation of sexual harassment.  In 2014,  59% of 13-21 year-old girls had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college  and almost a third of 16-18 year-old girls said they had experienced unwanted sexual touching whilst at school or college. Furthermore, qualitative data indicates that sexual harassment is often trivialised by both school staff and pupils. This demonstrates the need to change attitudes and practices.

 

(Research with 13-21 year old girls, Girl Guide Association, 2016)

Yet schools are not doing enough to address these issues. 63% of girls felt their school should should do more to tackle gender stereotypes and reports suggest that, in many schools, sexual harassment is deemed everyday ‘banter’ by school staff.

Ways forward:

  • The popularity of TV series’ like 13 Reasons Why demonstrate young people’s appetite for addressing sexual harassment and misogyny. A whole school culture that never accepts sexual harassment should therefore underpin delivery of SRE. This involves raising awareness and encouraging professionals to challenge their assumptions about gender-equality and abuse.
  • Teachers and leaders need support to address the issue. Although the government did not include specific training on sexual harassment in initial teacher training guidance, many schools recognise that they can make changes themselves, without waiting for government policies. School CPD should therefore equip teachers and leaders with the tools to tackle and prevent sexual harassment in schools. Feminista offers information, resources and workshops to teachers on how they can promote gender equality. Training and information sharing can raise awareness and provide practical advice on recognising and dealing with sexual harassment. Brook Learn offers training modules on how to deliver and implement effective SRE which can be useful for schools when developing relevant policies and practices.

Sexual harassment must not be overlooked or played down. The planned implementation of compulsory SRE provides an opportune moment to consider wider school policies and attitudes which are inextricably linked to sexual harassment. Normalising sexual harassment in school only paves the way for future gender inequality.

 

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