The rising national numbers of students reporting instances of person-to-person and online sexual harassment was addressed with candor at Jefferson Middle School.
On Thursday evening, a panel comprised of various community members met to discuss the findings of a 2011 American Association of University Women report, as well as ways in which sexual harassment can manifest and be coped with.
The event, called "Crossing the Line," began at 7 p.m. in the Jefferson auditorium with a summary of the report's findings from the 2010-11 school year - which indicated approximately 48 percent of the 1,965 sixth- through 12th-grade students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment. Carm Proctor, Jefferson principal, AAUW member and panel moderator, speculated that number may be higher in 2013 due to students' increased access to and usage of social media.
Carm Proctor, Jefferson Middle School principal, addresses audience members at Thursday’s panel discussion on sexual harassment amongst students.
P-J photo by Gavin Paterniti
"While in 2011 cyber harassment was less prevalent than in-person sexual harassment, you can imagine that this is no longer the case," Proctor said. "In the study, 36 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys experienced some type of online sexual harassment. Thirty percent of students experienced sexual harassment by text, email, social networking - such as Facebook - or other electronic means."Along with Proctor, the panel also included: Karen Briner Peterson, director of human resources at Jamestown Public Schools; Thom Wright, school counselor at Jefferson; Alycia Johnson, of the Chautauqua County Mental Health Department; and Timothy Hollern, Chautauqua County deputy sheriff.
Following a brief YouTube video in which students discussed their definitions of and experiences with sexual harassment, the panel then reflected on their own experiences with handling it on a professional and personal basis. The panel members were then asked to provide coping strategies for students experiencing sexual harassment, as well as strategies for its prevention.
"What we think or how we think affects us a great deal," Johnson said. "If a kid has experienced some sort of harassment in the school, the more they think about these things, the more worked up they're going to get and the more awkward it's going to seem. So, I try to get them to remind themselves that they are safe, and there are people around (who can help)."
Hollern suggested that students being harassed first say something to their harasser and, if that proves unsuccessful, keep a log of the continued harassment.
"Legally, in my profession, any harassment is based on repetition," he said. "A single instance of any type of harassment in and of itself is not going to be something that can be pursued by police. It's got to be repetitive behavior, so keeping some kind of a log of what's occurring is paramount to pursuing it down the road, if it goes that far."
Peterson suggested training students on the nature of sexual harassment in order to make them conscious of its negative effect on all involved.
In regard to cyber harassment, Wright said: "In my experience, these kids wear their hearts on their sleeves when it comes to social media. We need to help the targeted individual realize that the world is not coming to an end."
Proctor discussed a three-step sequence which she urges her students at Jefferson to take - ignore the harasser, tell the harasser to stop and report the harasser, if necessary.
"This is not to victimize the person, but to empower the individual whether they are (age) 9 or 15," Proctor said.
She also reiterated that education was the best method of prevention.
"Education won't cure (sexual harassment), but it can curb it," she said.
The 2011 AAUW Research report presents the most comprehensive research to date on sexual harassment in grades seven through 12, and reveals some sobering statistics about its prevalence and the negative impact it has on student education. The AAUW advances education and equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, research and philanthropy.
For more information about AAUW, go to www.aauw.org or jamestown-ny.aauw.net.