This January marks the fourth anniversary of #MeTooK12, a campaign spotlighting the widespread sexual harassment and assault millions of students experience each day. Although statistics show that most K-12 students experience sexual harassment, the problem has been minimized and normalized to their detriment. With the recent nationwide upsurge in student demonstrations protesting K-12 sexual harassment and violence, the #MeTooK12 campaign compels us to take note—and action.
#MeTooK12, launched by Stop Sexual Assault in Schools with the National Women’s Law Center in January 2018, is featured in national and international news outlets, student-focused books and magazines, education journals, the AFT’s Share My Lesson library, and has “kindled conversations in disciplines as diverse as sexual assault prevention and response, social work, gender equity, child development and educational leadership,” according to SSAIS Co-Founder Joel Levin. He describes some of its other achievements, including: “Amplifying the voices of students who had been victimized by peer and staff harassment; engaging a diverse group of constituencies around the need to address systemic gender discrimination in K-12 schools; broadening the #MeToo movement to encompass the antecedents/roots of workplace sexual harassment; stimulating adoption of K-12 sexual harassment prevention programs: consent education, bystander intervention and Title IX compliance.”
This past year #MeTooK12 took a long-awaited turn: high school students across the country began actively protesting schools’ inadequate response to sexual harassment and assault. When SSAIS sounded the alarm back in 2015, we knew it was imperative that K-12 students speak out about their experiences of sexual harassment and assault, following the example of college students whose protests lead to the formation of the 2014 Obama initiative It’s On Us.
But younger students face more obstacles: they are more vulnerable when reporting sexual harassment and assault. Reporting carries the risk of retaliation by peers, blame or punishment by parents and schools, legal considerations such as mandated reporting when disclosing information, and more. Nonetheless, students have found their voice, emboldened by the #MeToo and #MeTooK12 movements, demonstrations for racial justice, and college activists.
The return to in-person learning has also been a catalyst for the upsurge in #MeTooK12 activism. Seasoned K-12 activist Heidi Goldstein explains,
After a long period of remote learning, students experienced a respite from in-person sexual harassment. While glad to be back in school, many experienced an onslaught of sexual harassment and assault when they returned, with the same old problems roaring back. These behaviors were likely exacerbated by the increase in unaddressed mental health issues students experienced due to COVID-related isolation when they lacked reinforcement for acceptable behavior. Many returned to school with their social skills and good judgment impaired.
Recent nationwide demonstrations and walk-outs demanding better responses to sexual harassment also stem from the highly contested Trump era 2020 Title IX rule, which greatly reduced schools’ obligations to act on reports of sexual harassment and assault. It left schools and students confused about the supportive measures they are owed, particularly when district policies and state laws conflict with federal rule. Organizations hurried to create guidance for both Title IX Coordinators (tasked with implementing Title IX) and the public, like FAQs on Title IX and Supportive Measures for K-12 Students from the National Women’s Law Center. Their recent 100 School Districts Report and Toolkit provides schools and students specific actions to address sexual harassment and assault.
Students are desperate for change. Frustrated with their schools, they have resorted to Instagram to call out sexual harassment and violence. Online school board meetings show students, parents, and allies attempting to hold schools accountable for sexual harassment and assault. Communities are forming grassroots organizations like the Pennsylvania parent alliance PROSPR (Protect Our Students in Pine and Richland Now) and the nonprofit Shatter the Silence Fairfax County Public Schools to address “a hidden epidemic of sexual harassment, sexual abuse, discrimination, and human trafficking in their schools,” according to former and current FCPS students and parents. Because schools nationwide are notoriously lax when it comes to prioritizing Title IX training and compliance, “District leadership would do well to follow the advice educators often give to failing students: Engage in frank discussions, fact finding and self-evaluation to understand why they aren’t delivering to the standard. Make a corrective plan, and make a declaration of your intentions to execute on it so others may hold you accountable,” Heidi Goldstein writes.
Students can’t wait for top-down proactive change. While the Biden administration revisited the regressive 2020 Title IX rules in March 2021 with a week-long public comment period, the revision process will open only in April 2022 with the notice of proposed rulemaking. With change at the federal, state, and district levels occurring at glacial speed, students must be empowered to prevent and address the harassment. We can all help. Here’s how:
Open the conversation about sexual harassment with tips from the video, "What adults can do about K-12 sexual harassment and assault?"
Next, alongside youth, watch "Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School!"—a student-focused video featuring national experts covering a wide range of issues. Part Two includes important information on mandated reporting.
While students work towards top-down change, peer-to-peer education can reduce incidents of sexual harassment and assault and focus their advocacy. Youth can also gain support by starting a SASH Club chapter in their school or community. They may also share resources for high school students at Know Your IX, a project of Advocates for Youth.
Student-focused resources offer a powerful antidote to the culture of normalized sexual harassment and assault that plagues youth every day. Students have the potential to drive change, and with our support, they can make all learning spaces safe and equitable for all students. Please extend your help today!
Esther Warkov, Ph.D, is Executive Director, and Co-Founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. She is currently building a national network of parents, advocates, students and organizations dedicated to the mission of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools.
Prior to this advocacy work, Dr. Warkov received several awards including a Fulbright-Hays grant for original research in Wales, a grant from the ...