At least 1 in 4 middle school students say they’ve experienced unwanted verbal or physical sexual harassment on school grounds, often in the hallway or even in the classroom, according to new research published Sunday.
Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed nearly 1,400 students from four Midwestern middle schools on whether they had experienced unwanted sexual harassment. Overall, 27 percent of girls and 25 percent of boys reported they had experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment or violence.
The most commonly reported form of harassment was unwanted physical touching, which was reported by 21.6 percent of the students who said they had experienced harassment. Rumor-spreading, verbal sexual commentary and homophobic name-calling were the next most frequently reported at 18.9 percent, 18.2 percent and 17.9 percent, respectively.
One surprising finding to the researchers was where the incidents of harassment took place. The majority – 22.7 percent – took place in school hallways, closely followed by classrooms (21.4 percent), school gyms (13 percent) and near school lockers (9.7 percent).
“Hallways made sense. Even the gym made sense,” says Dorothy Espelage, principal investigator of the study and a professor of educational psychology. “The classroom was very surprising to our team.”
Espelage says although the number of students who reported unwanted sexual harassment is alarming and “very, very concerning,” it was also interesting to see that many students were dismissive of the incidents.
“We didn’t ask them to talk about how normal sexual harassment was,” Espelage says. “We asked them the most upsetting event … and they would almost undo it as if [to say], ‘But that’s just joking.'”
Overall, nearly 9 percent of the responses from students who said they had been sexually harassed included some form of “normalizing,” the study found.
“It is a cause of concern that these youth are at such a young age dismissive of behaviors that are clearly distressing,” the study says.
Still, that dismissiveness is perhaps unsurprising, Espelage says, given what the researchers know about the same schools’ teacher and staff perspectives on sexual harassment. In a study published last June, Espelage and her colleagues found many school staff members did not understand what constitutes sexual harassment and couldn’t clearly distinguish it from bullying. It also found school staff members were unclear about their roles in “controlling student hypersexuality as opposed to intervening when they observed sexual harassment as the law requires.”
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