"There was a guy in my art class who thought it was hi privilege to grab my butt whenever he wanted," writes a 15-year-old girl from Texas. "Like a fool, I thought it was just 'flirting' or 'teasing,' but it still made me feel dirty and violated. My problems didn't wear away over time. They only got worse."
The Texas girl is one of more than 4,200 school-age girls who told Seventeen magazine they have been pinched, fondled or subjected to sexually suggestive remarks at school, most of them, like her, both frequently and publicly.
In an analysis of the survey scheduled to be released today, researchers from Wellesley College find that nearly two-fifths of the girls reported being sexually harassed daily and another 29 percent said they were harassed weekly.
More than two-thirds said the harassment occurred in view of other people. Almost 90 percent were the target of unwanted sexual comments or gestures, and 83 percent reported unwanted touching.
The study, compared by the researchers with Redbook's landmark survey of sexual harassment in the workplace in 1976, is the first nationwide look at the problem in schools.
Like the Redbook survey, to which 9,000 women responded, it is based on self-reported answers to a magazine questionnaire and does not provide a scientific look at the prevalence of harassment in schools. Instead, it offers a detailed look at the range of harassment that girls experience, their responses and the responses of their schools in what the director of Wellesley's Center for Research on Women terms "a wake-up call."
"I would hope that people listen to the girls' voices and say we cannot ignore this problem," says Susan McGee Bailey, the center director. "We cannot think of this as something that happens once in a while and will go away, and all the usual things, that boys will be boys and it's just adolescence. It's not something we can ignore if we're serious about providing equal educational opportunity for all students."
A separate national poll, scheduled to be released in June by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, will measure the scope of the problem. That survey, conducted by pollster Louis Harris, will be based on a random sample of 1,500 girls and boys in grades eight through 11.
The Seventeen survey, answered by girls 9 to 19, uncovered few differences based on race or ethnicity and few differences between public and private schools. Only 4 percent of the girls reported being harassed by a teacher; the rest wrote about harassment by fellow students, boys in 97 percent of the cases.
The girls are not suffering the sexual harassment in silence. Of the 2,000 randomly selected responses that Wellesley researchers analyzed, more than three-quarters of the girls said they told somebody about the harassment.
Only 13 percent did nothing when harassed. Almost two-thirds told their harasser to stop, 40 percent walked away, and more than a third resisted with physical force.
"There was one particular day when the harassment was at an unusual high," writes a 14-year-old girl from Michigan. "I kept cool until the end of class. At the end of class I ran into the bathroom and started crying hysterically. One of my friends happened to see me and came in. She persuaded me to come out and go to class and the office. The boy was suspended and switched from the class. Although it was over and all, I still felt withdrawn from that class. I think that if it would have [gone] on any longer I would have failed that class."
Sexual harassment in schools is illegal under federal law, Title IX of the educational amendments of 1972, because it interferes with students' right to an equal education. Several states also have laws that provide additional protection.
Last year, in a case involving a girl who said she had been raped by a teacher, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could be liable for monetary damages under Title IX. In 1991, a Minnesota court awarded damages to a girl whose school had failed to remove obscene graffiti about her.
"There will be lawsuits and damage actions, but what makes more sense is for schools to react proactively the way more and more companies are by developing policies and training teachers about what harassment is, why it's inappropriate," says Helen Neuborne, director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, co-sponsor of the Seventeen study.
"The damage is done once the harassing goes on for any period of time. From the woman's perspective, prevention is the answer. Liability wakes up a company or school once they understand the risks are monetary and not just atmospheric."
When girls told a teacher or administrator they had been harassed, schools did nothing in 45 percent of the cases. In the other cases, the harasser was reprimanded, suspended, expelled, or, in the case of harassment by a school employee, dismissed or forced to resign.
"I have told teachers about this a number of times; each time nothing was done about it," writes a 13-year-old girl from Pennsylvania. "Teachers would act as if I had done something to cause it."