A recent study conducted by a University of Illinois education psychologist states that 43 percent of middle-school students surveyed in Illinois reported that they had been victims of verbal sexual harassment that ranged from comments to gestures or physical contact.
Dorothy Espelage reports that more than 1,000 Illinois students from four middle schools were followed from middle school to high school, and completed surveys about their experiences. Some students, as well as a few teachers, were interviewed by the research team.
The results of the study indicated a variety of behaviors that were reported by students. Twenty-one percent of surveyed students reported having been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual manner, while 18 percent reported having been brushed up against in a sexual manner.
Fourteen percent of students reported having been the target of sexual rumors, and 9 percent had been the subject of sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.
Espelage said that harassment reported in the survey often went beyond sexual material, into homophobic language. About 16 percent of surveyed students reported that they had been targeted with homophobic name-calling or jokes, and nearly 5 percent reported that this form of harassment happened frequently.
Though students reported a variety of bullying or harassing behaviors, some negated their responses on the survey, Espelage said. Fourteen percent of students who had been victimized wrote that the behavior of their friends and peers was "not really sexual harassment" and that the incidents were "meaningless" or "jokes."
Marion CUSD #2 Superintendent Dr. Keith Oates, along with Marion Junior High School Principal Becky Moss and guidance counselor Nicki Ashmore, reviewed the study and issued a statement regarding its findings.
"At MJHS, we recognize the impact sexual harassment has on middle-school students. Our school information booklet and district handbook acknowledges that harassment diminishes a student"s ability to learn and identifies prevention as a district goal.
"We take measures to educate students on bullying and harassment with a focus on reporting…all reports of harassment are investigated and we take steps to support those involved. Protecting our students from verbal or sexual harassment is a duty of all school staff."
To address any potential issues of sexual harassment or other forms of harassment, MJHS employs the Friend Watch system on the school website, which allows students, parents, or guardians to send an anonymous message to a counselor or administrator.
Students can also become involved in the Bullying Awareness Club, and staff members are trained on how to deal with bullying or harassment using the Public School Works program.
Harrisburg's school district has multiple measures in place to help prevent incidents of bullying, sexual harassment and other forms of intimidation. Each school has its own programs, plus a staff member who works specifically in that field.
Tim Davis works through a grant program called Advanced Wellness and Resilience in Education, a comprehensive effort that covers bullying, substance abuse, students with economic needs and mental health wellness.
"Anything that deals with the mental health side of it, we try to get kids the best service we can," Davis said. "We work in conjunction with the Egyptian Health Department."
He said Harrisburg's student handbook specifically addresses bullying and what the school will do to protect students. Anti-bullying resources also are worked into the curriculum, he said.
In addition, special programs also are used as avenues to open more channels of communication with students who may already suffer from bullying, sexual harassment or other abuse. Recently, one such program featured a pair of brothers who already were familiar to some Harrisburg pupils.
The wrestlers known as the Starr Twins, who were featured in a district fundraiser wrestling event in November, recently spoke to East Side Intermediate School, Davis said.
"Their message is, sometimes there is a fine line between kidding around with friends and bullying, and sometimes there comes a point where it crosses into bullying behavior," Davis said. "Maybe a kid gets pushed every day, maybe cyberbullied, text-messaged, maybe something on Facebook – any type of physical or verbal sign, we want the kids to look at."
He said the Starr Twins told the East Side students that if one of them is being bothered, they should let a teacher or administrator know what's happening. If a student isn't comfortable talking to someone at the school, he or she should talk to a trusted adult, who can notify someone at the school.
To encourage the pupils to talk to adults, the wrestlers invited them to communicate with them via Facebook.
Davis said as a result, the wrestlers had about 30 Facebook conversations with students later that day, several of which helped identify possible bullying or harassment situations.
When a potentially harmful situation is discovered, the Harrisburg district works with Egyptian Health Department in Eldorado to provide counseling and other resources for the student and his or her family.
In Eldorado schools, there are also many measures designed to identify possible situations harmful to students, according to assistant high school principal Cory Cusic.
"We've got our bullying policy in place districtwide, but each building also has its own different programs," Cusic said.
The Positive Behavior Intervention & Supports system is used as part of a proactive approach, he said. PBIS rewards positive behavior instead of only punishing negative actions.
"We also try to be visible, so students feel comfortable coming to talk to us, and we have a tip line where students can text us anonymously," Cusic said.
In addition, Eldorado's guidance counselor talks to students about bullying and harassment issues, as does a social worker and family resource developer.
"We're trying to encompass all students in our building, so if there are issues going on and they are afraid to approach us, then maybe they will approach other teachers or other trusted people," he said. "We feel like we're doing a pretty good job of that."