Carolyn Garfein of Alpharetta is national president of the American Association of University Women.
By Carolyn Garfein
From our nation’s top college campuses to small towns in Florida, Texas, Minnesota, and, yes, Georgia, the painful stories of children and teens experiencing bullying and sexual harassment have filled the news, leaving parents, educators, and community leaders with many questions and few answers.
Last year, in an attempt to shed some light on the issue, the American Association of University Women surveyed students in grades 7–12 and published the results in a report confirming many of the headlines we’ve been reading.
“Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School” revealed that nearly half of all surveyed students reported that they had been sexually harassed during the 2010–11 school year. Of that number, an overwhelming majority, 87 percent, said that being harassed had a negative effect on them. About a third of all girls and a quarter of boys said they had witnessed sexual harassment at school.
Even more troubling, the report found that one-half of students who were sexually harassed said they did nothing and told no one after the incident.
This may explain why Gwinnett County Public Schools reported that there were no incidents of sexual harassment, disciplinary actions as a result of bullying or harassment on the basis of sex, or students who reported being bullied or harassed on the basis of sex during the 2009–10 school year.
Gwinnett joined almost 7,000 school districts in reporting — for the first time— data on harassment and bullying to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet, the district, one of the nation’s largest, said it had no incidents of sexual harassment on record.
This account is incredible, indeed improbable, when compared with AAUW’s independent report. It would be a statistical miracle if GCPS students experienced no harassment whatsoever.
That’s why AAUW delivered a letter this week to Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks asking him to carefully review the initial report of zero incidents.
I want to be clear: I don’t think the school district initially lied about its records. Rather, AAUW’s report suggests that there is a disconnect between what students experience, how they report it, and how teachers and administrators handle those reports.
It is critical to bridge these gaps; otherwise, the district risks breaking the law. Title IX prohibits gender-based discrimination in federally funded educational programs, which includes harassment.
If the district fails to recognize and address discriminatory sexual harassment, it can be held responsible for violating students’ civil rights. As a result of greater public scrutiny, some districts, including Chicago and New York City, are already updating their data on bullying based on sex and sexual harassment.
Clearly, a district that aspires to be a world-class school system needs to follow basic education regulations.
In so many ways, Gwinnett has already distinguished itself as a leader in education. As the largest school system in Georgia and the 2010 winner of the Broad Award for top urban school district, Gwinnett County sets a critical example for other schools.
To continue its leadership, the district needs to recognize and address its approach to sexual harassment and bullying in schools.
Of course, sexual assault and sexual harassment are not the same thing, but if we’ve learned anything from Penn State University this year, it’s the importance of paying attention and facing these kinds of problems head on, rather than sweeping them under the rug.
I urge Superintendent Wilbanks to take immediate action to make sure our schools are safe learning environments for our children, something I know has been a priority throughout his 17 years of leadership.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog