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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sexual harassment in schools

For San Diego's North County Times

The week after Herman Cain launched his "nein, nein, nein" campaign denying sexual harassment allegations, Penn State fired its legendary football coach as a result of a grand jury report alleging that his former assistant coach engaged in a decade of sexual assaults on young boys.

What didn't make the news was a report by the American Association of University Women, "Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School," of findings from a nationwide survey of 2,000 students in grades 7 to 12.

Schoolyard taunting may not be as newsworthy as workplace harassment and child predators, but the same code of silence hides the pain of isolation and self-doubt that's led to teen suicides after sexual harassment at school.

According to the AAUW report, nearly half of students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in one year. Although 87 percent said it had a negative effect on them, only 9 percent reported it to a teacher or counselor. Just 12 percent felt their school did a good job of addressing the problem.

Students suggested online resources could help schools reduce sexual harassment, so I was disappointed to find many local schools don't have links to codes of conduct on their website homepages.

Carlsbad High School's can be found by a link to a student handbook that is available only on the district's website. To find Oceanside High School's sexual harassment policy, you have to hunt through a lengthy list of board policies, accessible only from a link on the district's website. Not exactly a student- or parent-friendly process.

The helpfulness of information about how to recognize and respond to sexually harassing behavior also varies in quality by school.

Escondido's Classical Academies charter school defines sexual harassment in its list of unacceptable behaviors, but does not include how to report it and what the punishment will be for violators. The school defines bullying as "repeated physical, verbal and/or emotional harassment," tells how it should be reported, and describes the punishment for it.

Sexual harassment is a kind of bullying, but it is not necessarily a repeated behavior, nor do harassers choose victims the same way bullies do. Students may be reluctant to come forward with reports of sexual harassment if it isn't as threatening to them as other kinds of bullying.

Poway High School and Escondido High School have exemplary policies, easily accessible from their home pages.

Poway's is exceptionally comprehensive and clear. Escondido's lists freedom from harassment as a student right, describes the difference between flirting and harassment, and concludes with the best advice of all, "Sexual harassment is based upon the impact on the victim. It is not based on the intentions of the perpetrator."

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