School stories shared on sexual harassment


One student, who is gay, dropped out of school because of sexual harassment. Another had condoms taped to her locker.

Both shared their stories with a group of educators, state officials, students and parents recently in Bel Air in an effort to increase awareness of sexual harassment in Maryland schools.

In conjunction with the American Association of University Women, organizers from three agencies -- the Maryland Department of Education, the Maryland Commission on Human Relations and the Maryland Commission for Women -- said they were responding to surveys and national and statewide incidents of sexual harassment.

"There was recognition that it is a pervasive issue for young women -- and men," said Jennifer Burdick, executive director of the Maryland Commission on Human Relations. "We want to raise the consciousness of students, parents and educators. It is a start to address the issues."

Organizers said they hope the November forum will serve as a model for future meetings to be held throughout the state. A written report will also be compiled that schools can use in developing their sexual harassment policies, said Linda Shevitz, gender equity specialist of the state Department of Education.

"The [forum] panel will be meeting to look at the recommendations," said Ms. Shevitz, referring to the suggestions offered by several people at the meeting on ways to address sexual harassment in schools.

High school student Connie Akehurst, who is president of the Maryland Association of Student Councils, had recommended that sexual harassment issues should be taught in health classes. Ms. Akehurst, who said that she had been harassed in school, also said that there should be definite penalties for sexual harassment.

Other speakers shared their experiences of harassment in school.

Anne M. Brown, state program vice president of AAUW and the forum moderator, said the most upsetting testimony was a female student's claim that her school had ignored an incident in which a box of condoms was taped to her locker.

"School policies are a joke," Ms. Brown said. "[School officials] say they have this in place and that in place, but it's not working."

Sexual harassment is defined by the Maryland State Board of Education as "unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature which interferes with a student's right to learn, study, work, achieve or participate in school activities in a comfortable and supportive atmosphere."

In other testimony, a former student said that the harassment he received because he is gay forced him out of school. He is now working on a diploma through a high school equivalency program.

"The students' experience mirrors what is happening in society," said Joanne Saltzberg, executive director of the Maryland Commission for Women.

The agencies decided to target sexual harassment in schools because if that behavior goes unchecked now, it could be a problem later when today's students enter the work force.

"One of the issues is incidents [of sexual harassment] in the employment context and how behavior starts when kids are younger," said Ms. Burdick of the human relations commission. "Men don't become harassers" all of a sudden when they are older.

While the forum focused on all types of sexual harassment in schools, "overwhelmingly it's girls who are harassed, student-to-student," Ms. Saltzberg said.

She cited two polls -- "Hostile Hallways," commissioned by the American Association of University Women, which showed that 80 percent of the 1,600 students surveyed experienced behavior they deemed sexual harassment, and a Seventeen magazine survey, done in conjunction with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, which found that almost 90 percent of the 4,200 teen-age girls who responded said they had been sexually harassed, from gestures to being grabbed.

Ms. Shevitz of the state Department of Education said that the state doesn't have figures on sexual harassment in schools, but that Maryland students were involved in the AAUW study.

A small survey of 59 Maryland students conducted by the State Department of Education concurred with the two national polls. Results showed that 64 percent of the respondents said they had been sexually harassed.

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