We are excited to bring you this guest post from journalist and friend of the CFC Elizabeth Mendez Berry!
It is hard to envision a school without sexual harassment. However, if one existed, I imagine it would be a place where kids can excel as students instead of having to worry about what is going to be said or done to them the next time they go in the hallway.” – Kai, student organizer, quoted in Hey Shorty
“So the dean says [you] know how young men think and [you’re] at fault for wearing an outfit that provoked that sort of attention, [you] should have known better, so he can’t do anything about it.”- Ariel, student organizer, quoted in Hey Shorty.
Schools are supposed to be safe spaces for learning, but it doesn’t always work out that way. For many girls and LGBTQ youth in New York City, sexual harassment inside and outside schools makes sidewalks, hallways, playgrounds and stairwells intimidating. A few weeks ago, I met with a group of teen girls at a Manhattan after school program, and I heard harrowing stories of harassment by their peers and older men, some of whom loiter outside schools waiting for children to emerge in order to flash or harass them. Several of the girls I spoke with had been followed home or physically grabbed by men or boys.
So what can we do about it? Hey Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets offers a comprehensive strategy. Written by members of the Brooklyn-based group Girls for Gender Equity, it chronicles a girls of color-led campaign against harassment, focusing on New York City schools; girls who led the campaign had been harassed on school property by their fellow students and even teachers.
These girls’ work is a potent example of youth activism: they successfully raised awareness about an issue that has too often gone ignored. The girls surveyed thousands of their fellow students around the city about sexual harassment. According to their research, “sexual teasing, ogling and touching is ubiquitous enough that [students] think these types of behavior are a normal part of everyday school experience.” In collaboration with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, the girls made a documentary about harassment.
The young women and the Girls for Gender Equity team tried to get the Department of Education to do something about it, because, it turns out, the D.O.E. is legally required to.
I’d always heard about 1972’s Title IX legislation in the context of athletics (thanks to Patsy Mink of Hawaii— first woman of color in Congress– for authoring the legislation), but it also protects students against sexual harassment. Read this book and you will feel the group’s frustration at finding out that in New York, Title IX coordinators—required by law— are M.I.A.
In my own research,I’ve been struck by how frequently young girls are harassed on their way to school— New York city councilmember Julissa Ferreras, who organized the country’s first ever hearing on street harassment of women and girls last October, heard from girls in her district who were being explicitly catcalled as they walked past a construction site on their way to class.
But despite all that attention to what happens on the sidewalk, I didn’t know much about what happens once girls arrive at school. According to Hey Shorty, school is no sanctuary.
We need to take action to make the streets and schools safer for our girls (and for everyone else). Hey Shortyoffers a detailed blueprint for how to do it, by empowering young people to take leadership on this issue and supporting them to develop effective strategies. But as you’ll see, despite all their hard work, these young women and their allies were not able to make the D.O.E. enforce policies that have existed for decades to protect students. We must raise awareness of this issue, and of the leadership these young women have taken, so next time the D.O.E. can’t ignore them as easily. These girls had incredible successes, but they can’t do it alone.
For more on sexual harassment in schools, visit the National Women’s Law Center.