#MeToo in School

David Crary, a journalist for the Associated Press recently wrote the following words: “Thanks to the vast reach of social media and the prevalence of sexual misconduct in virtually every society, the #MeToo movement has proven itself a genuinely global phenomenon.” According to a study conducted by the American Association of University Women in 2011, nearly half of all students in grades 7-12 reported sexual harassment at school. An earlier study by the same organization shows that one in ten students have experienced sexual misconduct from an educator. Denial about the possibility of this happening in our local schools is no longer tenable. We are bombarded daily with the news of sexual harassment and assault happening throughout all levels of society. Given the speed of social media and the ubiquitous use of technology by teens, this issue is unlikely to go away. Administrators, educators and school counsellors would do well to be prepared for the inevitable. The #MeToo movement can be an opportunity to insure our schools have a policy in place to protect both students and staff.

In order for student to develop the skills and attitudes that youth need to become healthy and productive adults, their schools need to be a safe place. Behind the scenes this safety is achieved only if the administration has educated both staff and students and set clear boundaries as to what is acceptable behaviour within the school community and what is not. Ideally, schools need to develop a district wide policy on handling sexual harassment, educating school administrators and staff on what steps to take when these situations occur, as well as establishing a process whereby student grievances can be heard. Students are empowered when taught to understand their right to say “no” and to trust their sense of appropriate boundaries. When their educators both model and teach this behaviour, students feel confident and secure in their schools.

The Thames Valley District School Board in Ontario defines sexual harassment as “verbal remarks, slurs, references, jokes or comments… conveyed through any means or media, any of which is of sexual nature… which is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome in that it may cause insecurity, discomfort, offense, or humiliation.” Unfortunately, words alone do not adequately protect staff or students, nor are they capable of changing the climate and culture of a school. When unions, lawyers, and the police get into the mix it is often an indication that the procedural steps did not result in a satisfactory outcome: a reason to not only have a clear policy in place, but to also do the work needed to create a more educated and responsive staff.

Physical Health and Education Canada (PHE Canada) has developed a program to increase awareness of what constitutes abuse and harassment. They assert that it is only when we understand the dynamics of harassment that we can then begin to put strategies in place to eliminate it. A harassment-free environment is the school’s legal obligation. Dealing with harassment or abuse as isolated incidents is ineffective and does little to redress the deeper causes within the school culture. Nor does it improve the knowledge and awareness of the staff. Often only a few people are involved in addressing a problem or in providing a solution. The results can be disappointing, such as in the case of a teacher accused of sexual harassment in Ontario who, having been disciplined was simply moved to another school only to re-offend.

The Toronto Star identified 27 such cases of abuse among teachers in Ontario between 2012 and 2017. After being investigated by their school board, they were disciplined and transferred at least once to a new school even before their cases were brought before the Ontario College of Teachers. The provincial oversight and licensing body found that all the allegations of harassment and abuse proved to be true. In nine of the cases the teachers had re-offended in the school they had been transferred to. This imprudent policy is known as “administrative transfer.”

A province-wide survey by the Ontario Secondary School Teacher Federation showed that over 80% of female students reported that they had been sexually harassed in a school setting. The lesson here is that the problem is widespread and systemic and has the power to poison the school environment for students and staff. “Teachers who have been found guilty of some kind of misconduct with students should not be transferred to another school,” according to Dr. Nick Scarfo,assistant professor in the department of Curriculum, Teaching, and Learning at the University of Toronto.

The Protecting Students Act (Bill 37) requires that teachers have their licences automatically revoked by the Ontario College of Teachers in cases of sexual misconduct with their students. Nevertheless, the province does not insist on the offending teachers’ licenses being revoked unless the crimes are of a “heinous and explicit nature,” a phrase which is open to various interpretations. There is also no requirement by the previous school or their school board that a principal be notified about an incoming teacher’s disciplinary past, according to a Toronto Star’s investigation. Sadly no one seems to have the responsibility to see that the principal of new school be notified.

Sexual harassment in an educational setting can be defined as any unwelcome behaviour or discrimination from other students or adult school personnel. Canadian law has established that intent or motive is irrelevant to such a charge. It is enough that the victim felt the effect of discrimination or harassment. School authorities have a legal obligation to take harassment seriously and deal with it effectively. This reality makes it all the more crucial that everyone in a school be cognizant of clear boundaries and appropriate behaviour. Here the most effective tools are education and information.

For students the information can be communicated through posters, in student handbooks, and during class presentations. Training for all staff should be mandatory and presented on a regular basis. These presentations should define harassment in all its forms, provide clear steps for intervention, and explain the importance of documentation. Knowledge of the laws on the mandatory reporting of sexual harassment and assault is necessary for school administration and staff. This is crucial to an educator’s ability to respond to a student in crisis.

Most schools believe they have adequate policies in place, but there is one dimension where these policies can fall short. Charol Shakeshaft, an educational researcher, who has extensively studied sexual abuse in schools, brings attention to this potential weakness: “When [administration] cover adult to student harassment, they cover it within their sexual harassment framework, which is unwanted behaviour. Of course, if its kids, it doesn’t matter if it’s wanted or not wanted. It’s not allowed.” There is an unequal balance of power inherent in the relationship between adolescents and their teacher that can unfortunately be exploited. The message to staff should be crystal clear. Any inappropriate physical contact by school staff with students is unacceptable.

Collaboration and transparency are central to ensuring a good policy is both understood and implemented. Studies recommend the importance of mandatory training that is scheduled throughout the school year and made available for the entire community. Publicizing the policy is also important for both bystander students and staff. If they see something they know their responsibility is to say something. The community then clearly understands which behaviours violate the rules and when to report. Developing and keeping the policy clear to all participants in the school is invaluable.

One school division in Winnipeg appears to be getting it right. According to the superintendent, “The division’s response to a violation of their Code of Conduct by a teacher includes both consequences and support.” Steps are in place for the issue to be addressed which involve a warning, a letter in the personnel file, a first and second suspension which is typically without pay. The final step is termination. Counselling is available throughout the process. “If the harassment is sexual in nature, a different protocol is followed.” The matter is first brought to the principal, followed by an inclusive meeting with the teacher, superintendent and the staff officer of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. If in the process of the investigation the offense is verified, the teacher is terminated. All new staff must take a four hour online course which covers respect for each other, for the students, and the workplace called Respect in School1. The course material and the step by step protocol are reviewed in staff meetings. Students learn the expectations required of them in class and at assemblies.

Nearly 70% of all reported sexual assaults occur to children under the age of 17. There are serious and ongoing consequences for students experiencing sexual harassment, especially when it is unaddressed. Students will disengage from their studies and from extracurricular school activities. They will skip or drop their classes, experience anxiety and depression which often results in loss of sleep and appetite. Their concentration is disrupted and their self-esteem takes a hit. Feelings of sadness, shame and social isolation can lead to alcohol and drug abuse. In extreme cases, students contemplate or attempt suicide. A student’s vulnerability to harassment worsens if it intersects with gender, racial, or disability issues. These issues are particularly toxic to adolescent students who are already struggling with their identities, sexuality, and peer pressure.

Of particular concern is the influence of media, particularly electronic media, and how it perpetuates negative stereotypes, showcases gender-based violence, and models unhealthy relationships. Many youth are online for large chunks of their day and often without adult monitoring or supervision. They are then far more prone to becoming targets of online sexual harassment. Social networking sites provide an expansive arena in which much emotional damage can occur, such as posting inappropriate pictures and videos and spreading gossip. Many school codes of conduct now include disciplinary action against any behaviour that occurs on or off the campus but negatively affect the school’s climate. The internet has magnified some of the negative adolescent behaviours and it behooves both educators and parents to take note and act. Keeping the next generation safe from the more egregious behaviours both in school or online will benefit us all.

By: Alison Zenisek

1: info@respectgroupinc.com