Sex harassment takes in nearly all teens, poll finds

June 02, 1993|By Los Angeles Times Staff writer Andrea Siegel contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Four in five American teen-agers have experienced some form of sexual harassment at school, while one in 10 said they have been forced to commit a sexual act, beyond kissing, during school hours, according to a new survey released yesterday.

While the majority of teens have suffered the harassment from schoolmates, one-fourth of the girls and one-tenth of the boys said they had been harassed by school employees, the survey said.

The survey, said to be the first nationwide effort to determine the level of sexual harassment in schools, was conducted by the American Association of University Women and questioned 1,600 public school students in grades eight through 12 from 79 schools across the continental United States. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

It employed a broad definition of sexual harassment, asking "has anyone done the following things to you when you did not want them to:" made sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks; written sexual messages or graffiti; spread sexual rumors about you; touched, grabbed or pinched you in a sexual way; spied on you as you dressed or showered at school; pulled your clothing off; forced a kiss; "mooned" you; or forced you to "do something sexual, other than kissing."

The organization said the findings provided evidence that the problem of sexual harassment in schools have reached "epidemic" proportions.

Furthermore, said Sharon Schuster, president of the association and chairwoman of its board of directors, "Adults, by not recognizing the problem, have allowed it to flourish."

While sexual harassment in the workplace is outlawed by the 1991 Civil Rights Act -- which provides up to $300,000 in damage awards for victims -- only a few states have addressed sexual harassment in schools.

In Maryland, Bonnie Copeland, deputy state superintendent of education, said her department met in April with local school superintendents and encouraged them to adopt sexual harassment guidelines.

Howard County public schools adopted a policy some time ago, and "I know many [other counties] are in the process," she said.

The Anne Arundel County public schools are working on guidelines

barring sexual harassment that will be considered by the school board in July.

In Baltimore County, the school board passed guidelines on sexual harassment in March that apply only to employees. Yesterday, school officials met with parents and students to discuss similar guidelines for students, said Myra Treiber, a school system spokeswoman.

Baltimore City has had two programs dealing with sexual harassment since 1984. One program runs from pre-kindergarten the sixth grade, while another begins in the eighth grade, said Nat Harrington, a spokesman.

Sexual harassment at school -- both verbal and physical -- can have a serious impact on its victims, especially girls, and can damage their self-esteem as well as affect their school work, the survey showed.

Nearly a quarter of girls who reported harassment said the incidents had caused them to stay home from school or cut class. Others said it hurt their grades and hindered their ability to concentrate on their work. Twenty-four percent said the experience had made them fearful, while 39 percent said they had been "very upset" by it.

Sixty-six percent of the boys and 52 percent of the girls admitted to sexually harassing other students, and 92 percent of those boys and 98 percent of those girls say they have been victims of harassment themselves.

One 14-year-old boy said: "People do this stuff every day. No one feels insulted by it. We just play around. I think sexual harassment is normal."

Two-thirds of the girls and 49 percent of the boys said they were harassed often or occasionally.

Boys indicated a much higher incidence of harassment by someone of the same sex than girls.

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