What Can Teachers Do About Sexual Harassment?

How one high school teacher and his class took on a sensitive but necessary discussion.

By Ellen Bravo and Larry Miller

Theresa was the only girl in the metalworking class. When a teacher asked her how things were going with the boys, Theresa replied, “Oh, it’s much better. They don’t grab my breasts and butt anymore. They just call me all those names.”

Paula hated walking past Leon and his friends. They would grab themselves and say things like, “Come on, now, you know you want it.” Some of her friends yelled comments back, but Paula never knew what to say.

Anton took the long way to class. He didn’t want to pass a certain group of girls who always made fun of him for being a virgin.

The eighth grade girls didn’t like the way the teacher would fondle their hair and then let his hand skim across their bodies. But because this had been going on for awhile, they were afraid to tell their parents. And they didn’t know who to tell at school.

These are just a few of the types of sexual harassment problems in our schools.

Despite the headlines and well-publicized court cases, most administrators have focused little attention on the problem. But teachers don’t have to wait for a directive that may be years in coming; we can take action right now in our classrooms.

Sexual harassment isn’t the only problem kids face in school and for many, it’s not the worst problem. But it’s an area where a lot of confusion exists — confusion that’s been cultivated by many people in authority who have trivialized the issue, criticized those who have raised it, and distorted proposed solutions.

For high school students, the situation is further complicated by adolescence. If being preoccupied with sex makes someone a harasser, most teenagers would have to plead guilty. Where’s the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior — and who’s drawing it?

Last year, when Larry Miller did a seven-day unit on sexual harassment, students afterward remarked that it was one of the highlights of the school year. He found that developing a unit on sexual harassment has several advantages:

  • The students love it. Students repeatedly said throughout the year, “Why can’t class always be as interesting?” Sexual harassment is also a subject on which students are eager to talk and have a great deal to say. What adolescent hasn’t spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating the complexities of intimate relations?
  • The students need it. Most students don’t understand the issue of sexual harassment and have lots of misconceptions. They need guidance and support to help figure out what is and isn’t appropriate behavior.
  • The students benefit from it. The benefits occur on a number of different levels. First, a sexual harassment unit empowers those individual girls and boys who may have been harassed. (For boys, it’s almost always for being gay or not “manly” enough.) Such students urgently need validation that harassment is wrong, that they’re not crazy, and that they’re not at fault. They need to hear that someone in authority cares about the problem and isn’t blaming them or dismissing their pain.

Second, it makes clear that harassment is behavior — thus helping to create a classroom culture in which students will have a stronger understanding that their rights will be respected and defended, regardless of whether they have ever been harassed. While it is essential to go beyond dealing with harassment on a classroom-by-classroom basis, individual discussions of the issue are often an essential first step.

Third, it helps clear up confusion among boys who think they’ll be in trouble for flirting or consensual joking. Larry found that while many boys initially felt hostile and suspicious during the unit (they feared the unit would demonize all boys and portray all girls as innocent victims), such attitudes changed when they found the focus was on inappropriate behavior and not on boys in general.

Fourth, it helps raise broader relationship and gender issues that the students need to talk about. One incident underscored this point to Larry. After the unit, a 16-year-old male student came up to him one day and asked to talk privately. It turned out the student had a common but simple biological question about sex — but had no adult male he felt comfortable talking to.

A Good Curriculum

A good curriculum makes clear that while most harassers are male, most males are not harassers. It also encourages students to intervene when harassment occurs, to speak out not as champions of the “poor victims” but as people offended by such behavior.

At its minimum, the curriculum should have three goals. First, it must help the majority of students to understand why harassment is wrong. Second, it must help the harassers to stop their behavior. Third, in what is a more complex issue, it must address larger issues of gender stereotypes and power. Students need to understand that sexual harassment is part of a continuum of sexual misconduct that has to do with domination rather than sex. This takes the issue out of the battle-of-the-sexes mode and helps students better understand patterns of sexual discrimination.

It is also essential to deal with the perspective that those who challenge sexual harassment are merely whining “victims” rather than people with a legitimate anger. Some critics argue that sexual harassment awareness training contributes to a nation of “victims.” Like any unit dealing with situations of oppression, the curriculum’s purpose is not to create a sense of hopelessness but of understanding and power — the knowledge that each of us is important and deserves to be treated with dignity. We don’t prevent or stop harassment by ignoring it any more than we do by condoning it. In fact, ignoring sexual harassment sends a powerful message that no one cares. This “hidden curriculum” can leave girls with a sense of powerlessness and, in essence, teaches girls to accept sexual inequality.

Teaching Techniques

Obviously, good teaching is central to the unit’s success. Teachers can use a variety of techniques, from videos to role plays, small-group discussions, and student essays. It is useful to begin with a “safe” lesson idea that encourages students to share their feelings, such as an anonymous survey asking students both their definition of sexual harassment and whether they have ever been harassed.

It’s a good idea to include at least one lesson plan that helps students distinguish between flirting and harassment. (See sample plan, p. 5.) In helping students distinguish between the two, Larry found that two questions were essential: Was the behavior unwelcome? Did the behavior make the recipient feel uncomfortable? If the answer is “yes” to the questions, the line is usually crossed between flirting and harassment.

Role plays and scenarios are a particularly useful technique. In his unit, Larry took a male and a female student that he knew were mature enough to act out what was, from their own experiences, the difference between flirtation and harassment. For example, the young man would look the girl up and down, make comments such as, “Hey, you want some of this,” or grab himself in his private parts. The girl would respond, “Go away, boy, I don’t need that crap.” It was clear from the class’ response to the role plays that the students, whether or not they could articulate it, often knew the difference between flirting and harassment.

Scenarios, in which the teacher describes a situation and asks for students’ responses, are a useful way to open up discussion.

Larry developed the following activities and also used some from the resources listed on p. 22.

In one scenario, boys “rate” girls as they walk past them in the hallway. (“She’s a 10;” “She’s so ugly she’d be pretty if she were a dog.”) During a discussion of such “ratings,” some boys argued that rating girls can be a compliment. “It’s just ugly girls who are offended,” one said.

Some girls had a different view. “I don’t care what I’m rated; it makes me uncomfortable,” Betty replied. “I don’t like it.” Other girls backed her up and made the point that such ratings are degrading and make a woman feel less than a human being. Larry found that such conversations were much-needed. Whether or not every student took Betty’s comments to heart, her point was made.

Another scenario focused on how boys “eye” girls. James, for instance, argued that he can look at anything he wants. “These are my eyes,” he insisted. But another student responded, “If I feel disrespected, then you’re out of order” — picking up on the common student concern with “respect” as a key factor in determining what’s right and wrong.

In doing such scenarios, it is important that one deal with the most evident form of harassment: the use of abusive words such as “bitch” and “whore.” In the discussion following such a scenario in Larry’s class, one female student reflected a common view that, “If a girl is not a ‘whore’ then she should be tough enough not to be offended by these words.”

Her view sparked a lively debate. A number of both young men and women shot back with comments such as, “We shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of nonsense.”

The power of the unit was most clear in the summary essays written by Larry’s students. Many of the students came to clearly understand not only the difference between flirting and harassment, but the issue’s importance.

Reflecting on flirting and harassment, Jamela wrote in her summary essay: “Flirting and sexual harassment are two different things. Flirting is when two people are joking and kidding around and none of them mind. But sexual harassment is when two people might be joking around and kidding around and one goes too far.

Another form may be when two people are talking or playing and one of them touches the other in a way they don’t like, or grabs the other in a way they don’t like.”

Jason, meanwhile, focused on the many responses to sexual harassment. Articulating a range of responses that most students were unaware of before the unit, he wrote, “Sometimes you can handle sexual harassment by ignoring it or asking the person to stop it, especially when it is name calling, rumors, light touching, or gestures. If it continues you need to go to someone in authority, either a teacher, parent, boss, or head of the department. If it still continues you need to keep taking action and not let them get away with it. Don’t be afraid to talk to other students or co-workers about it. Perhaps it is happening to them too and you could build a better case against that person. Sexual harassment should be an important issue in all communities. Looking the other way and doing nothing about it is saying that sexual harassment is okay.”

Ellen Bravo is executive director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women, and co-author of The 9 to 5 Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment.

Larry Miller teaches social studies at Custer High School in Milwaukee and is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate.