Mary Bacon on the thorny issue of harassment in the classroom

The data in the following report from the Commission on the Teaching Profession offer stark evidence that the teaching profession is failing to protect students from violence and sexual harassment at schools. The students surveyed in this report are students from grades 9 through 12 who reported experiencing racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, gender expression, disability, financial, parental and social discrimination.

Similar to previous surveys of high school students, students in grades 9 through 12 who have experienced racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, financial, parental and social discrimination experienced almost twice as many instances of mistreatment and bullying in school as their peers who have not experienced discrimination. There were also twice as many instances of sexual harassment. In addition, these students reported experiencing much more intimate partner violence in school. The students also reported experiencing more incidents of sexual assault and physical sexual assault in their homes and at home than their peers who reported little or no mistreatment in school. We should make these facts easy to read on a whiteboard in every classroom: harassment, mistreatment and violence have one harmful effect on young people, and that is putting them at risk for more harm in adulthood.

Empathy and social justice should be the bedrock principles of teaching, so policymakers have an obligation to take students’ experience of discrimination to heart. It is time for the United States to reconsider its current approach to sexual harassment and assault prevention — to broaden the focus from punishing transgressors to ensuring that educators have the best tools and strategies to transform both the communities where schools are located and the behaviors of students and teachers. Teachers should not be placed at an even greater disadvantage by institutional and regulatory limitations that impede their ability to fulfill their mission.

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