The #MeToo movement is shining a spotlight on sexual harassment and misconduct, exposing abuses in all aspects of our society. That includes not only Hollywood, government and businesses of all types – but also colleges and public schools.
As schools, we have a unique role to play when it comes to combating sexual harassment and misconduct. One key step is ensuring we have clear policies in place, and responding appropriately when they’re violated. Educators also have the opportunity to be proactive. We must educate students so they can recognize harassment – and break the cycle by not perpetuating it themselves.
February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, which is an opportune time to talk about these issues and highlight some steps underway at the Portland Public Schools to address them.
Teen dating violence is “a pattern of abuse or threat of abuse against teenaged dating partners, occurring in different forms, including verbal, emotional, physical, sexual and digital,” according to the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence.
To help combat teen dating violence, the Young Adult Abuse Prevention Program works with our schools to help students learn how to make safe, healthy, and informed choices in their dating relationships.
Most sexual harassment in schools also is peer-to-peer, according to research from the American Association of University Women. That research also shows that most students who sexually harass another student have been targets of sexual harassment themselves. It’s “a vicious cycle” that is self-perpetuating if not addressed, the AAUW concludes.
At the Portland Public Schools we are taking steps to help students learn to understand what sexual harassment is and how to prevent it. One example is the focus our schools are giving to the issue of consent in social situations and relationships.
“If you don’t teach a young adult about consent, they are forced to learn it on their own, which results in mistakes – mistakes that could potentially scar someone for the rest of their life, physically and/or emotionally,” says a Deering High School senior who has chosen the issue of consent as her senior Capstone project.
In their Capstone projects, Deering students explore topics they are passionate about and that they believe may be relevant to their next stage in life. The Deering senior whose project will focus on consent is concerned that Maine’s Health Education Standards don’t specifically require the issue of consent be taught.
Maine is not alone in that. According to a recent Education Week article, fewer than half the states in our nation require schools to include the topic of “avoiding coercion” in a sex education program.
To help ensure her peers are educated about consent, this senior plans to work with Deering’s health teachers to have students watch videos about consent and engage in small-group discussions.
At Casco Bay High School, the issue of consent was a focus as student leaders and staff recently worked together to devise new norms for school dances. Deering also has adopted these norms and Portland High School plans to share them with students.
The new norms include:
• Do not touch, hold or grab anyone else on the dance floor without clear consent.
• We are all responsible for each other’s safety. Check in with people if you see something happening to another student that is questionable to you.
• Report what you see to an adult if you do not feel comfortable intervening yourself.
• Please see a chaperone if you experience any non-consensual touching or dancing.
We’re also reaching out to parents, through our new Parent University, to assist them in helping their children foster healthy relationships. A March 14 session, from 5:30-7:30 p.m. at Lyman Moore Middle School, will focus on raising powerful and confident girls. A March 31 session, from 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. at Ocean Avenue Elementary School, will be on raising healthy and resilient boys.
I’ll close by noting that National School Counseling Week was Feb. 5-9. School counselors typically are the first people our students turn to and depend on when dealing with such issues as sexual harassment. During this month, let’s all take the time to thank and celebrate our school counselors.
Xavier Botana is superintendent of the Portland Public Schools. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.