Esther Warkov, Ph.D., is Executive Director and Co-Founder of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a national nonprofit addressing rampant K-12 sexual harassment and assault
After our daughter was sexually assaulted on a school field trip, the ensuing chaos was exacerbated by the school’s inadequate response. Over time, we learned about alarming statistics and how traumatic sexual harassment and assault are normalized in K-12 schools.
Stigma and fear of retaliation for reporting sexual harassment and assault cause students to suffer in silence. School staff may also experience retaliation when advocating for victims.
Because schools often ignore or downplay reports, the public is still unaware of widespread K-12 sexual harassment and violence. More likely than not, we know students who have experienced sexual harassment or assault but haven’t told us.
Many students also become anxious after witnessing or hearing about incidents, so the traumatic harassment extends into the school community, eventually impacting friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and more. When harassment or assault prevents students from graduating high school, the cost to society for each dropout is $272,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
School districts may try to avoid legal action or negative press by ignoring sexual harassment and assault. They may delay investigating, deny responsibility, distort the facts, disparage the victim, and devalue their right to an equal education—a report card of straight Ds.
Some schools admit to victim-blaming as a tactic to mitigate liability. However, denying or ignoring sexual harassment is always the wrong course of action because school districts end up harming the very students they are mandated to serve.
To improve school environments, we must understand the obstacles to change, which “stem from the lack of resources to support Title IX compliance, including for Title IX Coordinators, who are responsible for ensuring schools are complying with Title IX and responding appropriately to sex discrimination, including sexual harassment,” according to Shiwali Patel, Director of Justice for Student Survivors and Senior Counsel at the National Women’s Law Center.
But when students, parents, and education professionals demand change, schools take steps to eliminate the harassment and improve Title IX enforcement.
There’s a simple action we can all take right now. Researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University are conducting focus groups with school administrators and Title IX Coordinators to determine the resources they need to make effective change.
By “fostering open dialogue with administrators and Title IX Coordinators to determine their needs and implementing professional learning for preventing and addressing sexual-based harassment and assault, we can break down the barriers that silence victims and permit perpetrators to act without consequence,” VCU researchers affirm.
Researchers need data from school administrators and Title IX Coordinators to make a national impact. Take just five minutes to invite your school principals, administrators, and Title IX Coordinators to participate before the last focus groups on Jan. 16 and 17.
With one five-minute action, you can help protect students nationwide. School administrators and Title IX Coordinators will benefit by sharing their insights, learning from other school administrators’ professional experience, and receiving researchers’ findings and recommendations.
In addition, national gender equity organizations like Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, the National Coalition of Women and Girls in Education, AAUW, and the National Women’s Law Center will have access to this data—assisting their efforts to create new resources and shape legislative advocacy.
When school administrators participate in this study, they demonstrate exemplary commitment to improving gender equity and ensuring safe learning environments for all students.
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 National Endowment of the Arts to study the performance of Middle Eastern music, and dissertation grants to research Arab and Jewish musicians in the Middle East. Dr. Warkov’s experience with music students, with professional musicians from a variety of socio-economic groups, and her passion for education combine to create a unique foundation for her advocacy work.
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