The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This post is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists.
Sexual harassment and assault don’t suddenly happen in college or in the workplace. They occur because perpetrators hone these behaviors in K-12 schools, making them the training ground for sexual harassment and assault that occurs in college and the workplace.
While the #MeToo social media campaign gives an important voice to adult survivors, a new hashtag, #MeTooK12, is gaining momentum to shed light on younger assault victims. Created by the nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS) in partnership with the National Women’s Law Center, this campaign encourages K-12 victims of harassment or assault and their allies to share their experience and empowers communities to make change. It spotlights the widespread sexual harassment that students experience before entering college or the workforce, and underscores the urgency of addressing this problem in early education.
Despite the magnitude of the problem, students are unknowingly at risk of becoming a statistic, having their education derailed, or suffering severe trauma or suicide. According to a 2015 study nearly half of all middle and high school students report being sexually harassed. More than 10 percent of high school girls and 3 percent of boys report having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse. LGBTQ students are at greatest risk.
Activists now have an opening to combat harassment and assault by educating K-12 students. Some teen girls are leading the way, bringing change to their schools and their communities.
Many girls have come to believe that sexual harassment—and even forms of sexual assault—are normal and must be endured. When I saw this happening around me in 2014 (at age 14), I created a community action program, EMPOWERU, that partners with SSAIS to model how youth and communities can make change. In Florida I educate students on sexual assault facts, consent, bystander intervention and Title IX. I advocate that all K-12 schools and communities nationwide use the free SSAIS video and action plan Sexual Harassment: Not in Our School! so gender equity education is valued as much as academic subjects. My work has led to the Sarasota County Schools’ Safe and Drug Free Schools committee approving a comprehensive K-12 sexual harassment and assault education program for all K-12 county public school students and educators.
On the west coast, in California, the student-led independent organization Berkeley High School Stop Harassing combates the culture of sexual harm on campus. It began after dozens of female students reported experiences of sexual harassment, faced bureaucratic obstacles and experienced social retaliation. BHSSH initiates educational campaigns, advocates for better policies and supports survivors.
“Our work has been an impetus for change,” said club president Emily Levenson, 17. “The district hired a Title IX coordinator for the first time in over a decade, and our school conducted its first climate survey on sexual violence in our community.”
In addition, according to public school reports required by California’s Seth’s Law, the number of reported cases of sexual harassment and assault in the BHSSH school district has steadily increased since the organization’s inception, providing evidence the program is making a difference.
Farther north, Ashland High School in Ashland, Oregon, has a Got Consent club that compelled their school district to change how it handles sexual violence. Got Consent’s founding members are all survivors of sexual assault. The club now includes survivors and advocates. One of its initiatives under leader Bella Head, 17, is peer education. Got Consent has collaborated with the high school’s health teachers, who have created a six-day gender violence prevention unit for juniors that includes a Title IX day and culminates with the students creating PSAs in support of the program, which are then shown schoolwide. Got Consent’s voluntary monthly educational sessions have led to three-times the number of students accessing confidential resources and an equal increase in the number of parents who contact sexual assault response team staff.
Because girls of color experience a higher rate of dropout after sexual harassment, Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) has developed programs specifically for this demographic in New York City. GGE teaches girls the facts about sexual harassment and assault as well as their rights under Title IX and then empowers and encourages them to share that knowledge as community organizers. “There are 200 girls in the program being educated on government and social justice, said GGE Youth Women’s Advisory Council representative, Christina Powell, 17. “We talk about personal stories and how we have been affected, connecting and creating solutions.”
Over the past 15 years, GGE has mobilized over 8,000 girls of color ages 11-24 to work together with their communities, undertaking policy advocacy, offering community organizing campaigns, and developing programming to enrich member’s live. “We support teens. Young people already have power. We don’t give them a voice, but for them to be heard, it requires some of us to stop talking so much,” said Brittany Brathwaite, organizing and innovation manager.
After starting a first-of-its-kind gender equity club at her high school in Washington state, college sophomore Chellie Labonete, 19, now leads a 26-member online group called Youth Against Sexual Harassment (YASH). YASH connects youth from across the country to communicate via the YASH Facebook group about activism to combat sexual violence and gender discrimination. “Many members represent YASH in school-based gender equity clubs,” said Labonete. “Together, we share educational information about Title IX, advances in sexual assault activism, and sexual violence prevention.”
This sharing can lead to stronger sexual harassment policies. After a recent online meeting, Labonete helped a YASH member draft a presentation addressing her school’s lack of prevention education. Even though the two live only nine miles apart, YASH connected them in a way that geography couldn’t.
The Future is Ms. is committed to amplifying the voices of young women everywhere. Share one of your own stories about your path to empowerment at SayItForward.org.