*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on NewsMedical.
The recent suicide of Brandy Vela, a teen in Texas City, Texas, was a potent reminder of the sometimes tragic consequences of bullying. According to Vela’s parents, the teen fatally shot herself Nov. 29 following months of bullying and sexual harassment, perpetrated in part through text messages and social media.
Sexual harassment is a prevalent form of victimization that most antibullying programs ignore and teachers and school officials often fail to recognize, said bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage.
Espelage recently led a five-year study that examined links between bullying and sexual harassment among schoolchildren in Illinois. Nearly half – 43 percent – of middle school students surveyed for the study reported they had been the victims of verbal sexual harassment such as sexual comments, jokes or gestures during the prior year.
The study followed 1,300 Illinois youths from middle school to high school, examining the risk factors associated with bullying and sexual harassment and the characteristics of the perpetrators. Students from four middle schools completed the surveys, and some of the youths and their teachers also were interviewed by the researchers.
Espelage, who conducted the research while on the faculty of the University of Illinois, is a professor of psychology at the University of Florida.
While verbal harassment was more common than physical sexual harassment or sexual assault, 21 percent of students reported having been touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way, and 18 percent said peers had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner.
Students also reported being forced to kiss the perpetrators, having their private areas touched without consent and being “pantsed” – having their pants or shorts jerked down by someone else in public.
About 14 percent of the students in the study reported having been the target of sexual rumors, and 9 percent had been victimized with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.
“What was most surprising and concerning was that these young people were dismissive of these experiences, even though they described them as very upsetting,” Espelage said. “Students failed to recognize the seriousness of these behaviors – in part because teachers and school officials failed to address them. Prevention programs need to address what is driving this dismissiveness.
While students reported that large proportions of these sexual harassment incidents occurred in places such as school hallways, classrooms, gym locker rooms or gym classes where faculty and staff members ostensibly might witness them, the researchers found that many teachers, school officials and staff members failed to acknowledge that sexual harassment occurred in their schools.
Many of these adults also were unaware that they were mandated by school district or federal policies to protect students from sexual harassment, Espelage said.