An unfortunate oversight of the recent media attention on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) bullying is the advocacy potential that decades-old legislation has to prevent gender-based harassment in schools. Title IX of the Education Amendment is the federal civil rights law passed by the United States government in 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in educational institutions that receive federal funds.
Up until Title IX’s passage, men were receiving preferential treatment such as access to higher education, scholarship monies, and training in the fields of law and medicine. From kindergarten through graduate school, Title IX mandates gender parity in ten key areas including math, science, and technology; equal opportunities for students who are pregnant or parenting; and prevention of sexual harassment and assault.
In New York City, Girls for Gender Equity (GGE) has been advocating for increased school safety – a decade-long campaign led by parents, teachers, and female and LGBTQ students. And if there is one thing the teen women of color organizers at Girls for Gender Equity want you to know, it is that Title IX of the Education Amendment does not only apply to college sports – the area most associated with Title IX enforcement.
“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,” says former GGE youth organizer Kai Walker.
In April 2010 and April 2011 the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the US Department of Education released two “Dear Colleague” letters to “provide guidance” and “examples of remedies and enforcement strategies” for reported sexual harassment infractions in public schools. While this public acknowledgement from the Obama Administration is a step in the right direction, the tactic ultimately lacks teeth. The letters simply restate what the law already requires. It politely requests officials to increase their efforts at enforcement, but does not take steps to ensure mandatory application of the federal law. For all practical purposes, the “Dear Colleague” letters do not go beyond lip service.
Girls for Gender Equity organizers celebrating the launch of Hey, Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets. Photograph courtesy of the author. •
As a result, grassroots organizations like GGE rely on the strength of the members of their own communities to hold schools accountable for failing to keep students safe. Nearly forty years after Title IX’s passage, GGE’s youth-led research project on sexual harassment in the New York City public schools found that nearly 1 in 4 students are sexually harassed in school every single day – with behaviors that range from verbal (71 percent) to physical (63 percent) to criminal sexual assault (10 percent).College student Kayla Andrews was a part of the research team. She says, “If given the golden opportunity to converse with President Obama regarding Title IX in public schools, I would first and foremost introduce him to a day in the life of students. I would tell him stories of how girls walk briskly to class out of fear of being harassed and boys who feel uncomfortable being their true selves because they fear ridicule and abuse.”
In Hey, Shorty: A Guide to Combating Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools and on the Streets, GGE Community Organizer Nefertiti Martin recalls what it was like for her to be called homophobic slurs at school: “Before I even knew what gay was, somebody managed to find something to say about my limp wrists and effeminate lisp. Teachers and faculty tell me some lines about how sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. But words have always hurt me.”
Chiamaka Agbasionwe agrees and shares about a classmate who “made me feel disgusted with myself. He made me second-guess what I wore that day, how my hair looked, and just me as a woman. His ‘compliments’ were insults knowing the disrespectful connotations behind them. His looks were knives through my self-esteem.”
Kayla wants President Obama to know about the lack of support for students who are sexually harassed at school. “I would make the President aware of just how difficult it is to find someone within the school who actually knows what Title IX is, much less follows the procedures for recording sexual harassment offenses,” she says.
GGE found that a mere 3 percent of students made a report after being sexually harassed, and 22 percent say they were further traumatized by school staff after making the report.? Over half say they did not know how students who sexually harassed others were dealt with at their school because there was no follow-up with them by school authorities. And less than 2 percent feel the perpetrator was dealt with appropriately.
“Enforcing Title IX alone cannot end sexual harassment, but it can mitigate it,” says GGE youth organizer Nkeya Peters. “The way it can be alleviated in public schools is by raising awareness and hiring social service workers to properly address the issue and its consequences.”
With Hey, Shorty!, Girls for Gender Equity seeks to broaden people’s understanding of Title IX and shine a light on the ineffectual nature of an unenforced federal law. As the group moves forward with its community-based work, Hey, Shorty! offers youth and adult allies nationwide an accessible guide to implement in their own schools and cities to combat unwanted sexual attention and LGBTQ bullying. The model they use shows that young women who are given adequate support can successfully mobilize to demand accountability in their schools. It demonstrates that safety does not have to be an impediment to an education.
“It takes living in the shoes of a sexually harassed student to know just how detrimental harassment can be to one’s education,” says Kayla. “If President Obama wants to address the issues in this country regarding education, he needs to start at the root of the problem, which includes the reasons why students avoid going to school in the first place.”