A survey finds rampant sexual harassment in D.C. public schools.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Ricks believes that sexual harassment is epidemic in District of Columbia public schools. She’s sure she’s seen it. She says she’s been subjected to it herself.

Ricks notes that she frequently observed sexual harassment in her two years at Wilson High School, mostly via comments in the hall and graffiti on the walls. She later transferred to a charter school. “I’ve been sexually harassed,” she says. “It happens to everyone when you walk down the hall.”

Apparently, she’s not alone. In a survey of 213 District high school students conducted over the summer by the Young Women’s Project—a 9-year-old community outreach group for teenage girls—84 percent of respondents said that they had been sexually harassed by another student. Twenty-five percent of those surveyed reported harassment by a teacher or member of school staff. Moreover, 66 percent of respondents said that they had no idea their school even had a sexual harassment policy, and another 57.5 percent reported that they didn’t know how to get information about sexual harassment in their school.

But how, exactly, do you define the term “sexual harassment” in the hormone-filled hallways of a typical urban high school? Where does ordinary adolescent horseplay end and genuinely hostile behavior begin? The young authors of the survey seemed much more certain of the answers to these questions than many adults who recall their own high school confusion over sexual issues.

Among the survey questions was one in which students were asked whether fellow pupils had “made sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks; showed or gave you sexual pictures or notes; wrote sexual messages or graffiti about you; flashed or mooned you; spread sexual rumors about you; spied on you as you dressed or showered; touched or grabbed you in a sexual way; intentionally brushed against you in a sexual way or forced you to kiss him/her.”

Ricks, who worked on the survey team, says that most of the teens reported harassment involving jokes and graffiti, though the responses showed a wide range of abuses, including some involving physical harassment. Roughly half the respondents to the survey were girls.

Sarah Roma, a full-time staffer at the Young Women’s Project, concedes that the data wouldn’t pass muster in a scientific research paper—the sample wasn’t random; teens were canvassed in high schools and shopping malls—but she argues that it’s useful in spotlighting a festering problem in District schools.

“I can’t think of one teen woman I’ve worked with that hasn’t been sexually harassed,” says Roma. “Our hope is to work with [District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) administrators] on this and get public support to decrease the problem.”

School board member Tommy Wells, who oversees sexual harassment policy with fellow board member Laura Gardner, says he wasn’t surprised by the survey results. “It fits in with a problem we have in our high schools nationally, and we have that problem in D.C., too,” Wells says.

Among the survey’s other sobering findings: Just 14.1 percent of students said that they had received any sexual harassment training in school, and 47.3 percent indicated that they wanted training on how to confront someone who was sexually harassing them. Another 74.3 percent said that it was important to receive more support and training in dealing with sexual harassment.

What the District needs, Roma says, is a comprehensive sexual harassment policy that students can use. The current DCPS policy is simply a superintendent’s directive on sexual harassment that, at times, reads like a jet-engine repair manual. The clause detailing student punishment is a typically twisted section: “All such conduct by students will be subject to the disciplinary provisions of sections 2503.1, 2503.2 and 2504, except as limited or precluded by other provisions of Title 5…relating to the discipline of a student with a disability.”

Roma and Ricks both say that such directives leave teens confused, instead of providing practical steps for reporting, assessing, and, where necessary, disciplining such conduct. They also criticize the policy for failing to ensure confidentiality for accusers, prohibit retaliation, or stipulate a clear complaint procedure.

So the Young Women’s Project survey team drafted its own sexual harassment policy for DCPS, based on policies from other school districts and advice from a lawyer. Roma and her team presented their concerns to Wells and Gardner at a July 16 roundtable discussion. They also mailed their draft policy to the school board itself. They hope the board will address the policy at its Sept. 19 meeting.

But Wells says the issue is not scheduled for discussion at that meeting, and he believes that input from other sources is needed. “This is a big problem that’s not going to go away with one or two policy meetings,” he says. CP