Crossing the Line: The Bully Culture

We live in a bully culture. We even watch it play out on the stage of national politics, and have been for years. It has been 20 years since Anita Hill came forward to testify about the harassment she endured from Clarence Thomas.

The women who have come forward to speak about what they experienced at the hands of presidential candidate Herman Cain are now living the Anita Hill nightmare. Speak up about an abuse of power of a sexual nature and it is your reputation that is dragged through the mud.

This bully culture also permeates our schools and tortures our youngsters. It is so pervasive that not to experience some form of sexual harassment while in school is unusual.

Students cannot escape this bully culture, so they characterize it as flirting, as teasing, as meanness and as something to be endured. Why talk about it? Why call even more unwanted attention to yourself by fighting back? Why take it to an authority figure when it will be ignored?

The lesson of the latest research on sexual harassment in school, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, is that when it comes to students harassing students in a sexual manner, no line exists.

What the Crossing the Line report from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) shows is a snapshot from one year in the life of average students. Nearly 50 percent of all students experienced some form of unwanted sexual harassment during that year.

This study backs up two previous AAUW harassment studies that show the same result.

Five minutes’ conversation with any group of students will net the same results. Listen to the stories of a typical school day or read on-line blog posts set up to record these stories anecdotally and you come away knowing just what our children are facing.

Given this environment in schools, is it any wonder we have street harassment? The bully culture saturates society.

In the military, harassment and violence of a sexual nature are so pervasive that one-in-three women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who were diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder also reported military sexual trauma — not from the enemy, but from fellow soldiers.

Prosecution rates for sexual predators in the military are low; in 2010, less than 21 percent of cases went to trial. Of these, only 53 percent were convicted.

In February, a group of U.S. women veterans filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Department of Defense. The lawsuit calls for the Pentagon to eliminate the hostile environment in which complaints of sexual assault in the military are met.

The plaintiffs’ case is supported by a 2008 survey of 103 military sexual assault victims that revealed that nearly half did not report a rape for fear of ostracism and the belief that nothing would be done. In the lawsuit, plaintiffs suggest alternative measures to more effectively deal with complaints, including having an objective third party handle sexual assault charges instead of commanding officers.

If the bully culture is now occupying the schoolroom, and it is, then it is past time for that culture to be acknowledged. Until now, it has been met with a culture of silence. But is not just the way things are; it is something we can face, recognize, reject and change.

The report offers suggestions for action. The students themselves had proactive ideas for reducing sexual harassment in their school, including designating a person they can talk to, providing online resources and holding in-class discussions. Allowing students to anonymously report problems was a top recommendation, as was enforcing existing sexual harassment policies and punishing harassers. Perhaps the best thing I can do and you can do, right now, to combat sexual harassment in schools is to visit, request a copy of “Crossing the Line,” and put it in the hands of a teacher, principal, or school liaison officer.

This stuff is not rocket science. This report can and should spur strategies and approaches for responding to and preventing sexual harassment in schools.

Seymour is communications director for Association of American University Women -NYS and a member of the St. Lawrence County Branch, American Association of University Women.

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