Grade Schools Fail to Respond to Childhood Harassment

The result: Girls start to respond passively to abuse, researchers say

MONDAY, Nov. 18, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Seemingly innocuous childhood harassment, such as bra-snapping and hair-pulling, could be establishing unhealthy behavior patterns that invite sexual violence down the road.

That's the thesis of two University of Illinois professors whose work in law and educational psychology, respectively, led them to see parallels between the psychology of battered women and the behavior of school girls responding to unwelcome harassment.

"In reading the legal cases about sexual harassment in schools, the girls were acting just like battered women -- hoping it will be over soon, hoping it won't happen again, pretending it didn't happen, which is the exactly the dynamic with battered women," says Karla Fischer, a visiting law professor at the university who often represents battered women in court.

Fischer and her husband, educational psychology professor Philip Rodkin, realized the behavioral similarities when they discussed their work with each other and collaborated on an article outlining their thesis. The article will be published in an upcoming special issue of the The Journal of Applied School Psychology, as well as in a book about preventing sexual harassment.

Fischer says that sexual harassment, which she defines as "any sexual behavior that is unwanted and bothers you," starts as early as third grade. While boys are also subject to harassment, it is girls who are the prime victims of most sexual harassment and who are the focus of her and her husband's work.

Sexual harassment is very common, she says, citing a 2001 report published by the American Association of University Women that found that four out of five eighth through 12th graders, girls and boys, reported some form of sexual harassment, many before the sixth grade.

What's more, Fischer says, sexual harassment among school children is often tacitly condoned by American society.

"School authorities tend to underestimate the prevalence and the impact of sexual harassment," she says, evidenced by the fact that well over half the incidents of harassment take place in public spaces, such as hallways or classrooms.

"Not only is sexual harassment accepted, it is rewarded," she adds. "It is often done by popular boys who use it to become more popular with their peers."

Though bra-snapping and teasing about a girl's figure in school do not lead directly to the kind of sexual violence suffered by battered women, Fischer says, there are many situational and psychological parallels between school harassment and the conditions that battered women face.

"The sexually harassed school girl and the battered woman both have to share the same physical space with those acting out against them, they both have an ongoing relationship with someone over whom they have no control, and they are both keenly aware that what they do today will have an impact on the future," she says.

Girls' responses to these conditions in school can set up behavior patterns that could give them trouble when they are in adult relationships, Fischer says.

"It sets up a passive response. The girls don't deck boys who snap their bra straps. Rather, they pretend it didn't happen," she says. "In my work with battered women, a lot of their stories start with childhood in the classroom."

Nadine Kaslow, chief of psychology at the Emory University Medical School in Atlanta, says there is a great deal of data about familial patterns that lead to domestic violence, but this new article addresses societal patterns, particularly those of peer dynamics and teacher dynamics, and as such is a "very interesting social hypothesis."

"Domestic violence doesn't occur in a vacuum. There is a developmental course to it" that could begin in school, Kaslow says. "Females are rewarded for learned helplessness and men are rewarded for more aggressive qualities."

Fischer says there is a clear need for programs to train girls how to respond to sexual harassment while they are in school.

"Girls need to practice verbal and psychological self-defense training so they can act when they are acted upon," she says.

School authorities, too, can do a better job of addressing sexual harassment, she says.

"Schools need to recognize that an incident is part of a larger pattern that includes a child's peers and the school in general. They need a wider lens to look at this," Fischer says.

What To Do

A summary of the American Association of University Women report on school harassment can be found at AAUW. Parents can learn how to help their children deal with teasing by visiting ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

SOURCES: Karla Fischer, Ph.D., visiting professor, law, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; Nadine Kaslow, Ph.D., chief, psychology, Emory University Medical School, Atlanta
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