A recent study shows just how much middle and high school students are being sexually harassed at school or in a school setting because of their perceived sexual orientation and gender identification.
" [ B ] eing called gay or lesbian in a negative way is sexual harassment that girls and boys reported in equal numbers ( 18 percent ) ," states a 2010-11 report conducted by the American Association of University Women entitled "Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School."
Overall, 40 percent of males reported having experienced sexual harassment while 56 percent of females reported harassment.
In the context of a school environment sexual harassment is defined as "any unwanted sexual conduct at school. In the school setting, sexual harassment includes unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student's educational opportunities."
Also, the report says that using inflammatory language such as saying "That's so gay" or other derogatory comments can make students feel so unsafe at school that it impedes their ability to receive a quality education.
Shannon Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Safe School Alliance, thinks that the best way to change a school's culture into being more aware of sexual harassment and the way it affects LGBT students is to educate the teachers and staff.
"A powerful thing for schools to do is to make sure that their staffall their staffis aware that when they hear this type of langue they need to let their kids know that it is inappropriate and why it's inappropriate," Sullivan told Windy City Times. "They need to communicate values and accountability about using this type of language."
Often derogatory comments may be made in a "joking manner," but the psychological effects on the harassed student can be very great.
The report states that "even incidents that appear 'minor,' such as sexual comments and jokes or being called gay or lesbian, may have a profound impact on the emotional well-being of some students."
Social signifiersthe way a student dresses and after school activitiesare cited as reasons why students may be targeted for sexual harassment.
Regarding middle and high school students, the most common form of this type of harassment comes by other students policing gender norms and perceived sexual orientation. If male students are viewed as "effeminate" or wear "gay" clothing, they are more likely to experience sexual harassment. Meanwhile females are targeted for not wearing make-up and playing sports.
The most efficient way to promote a safe environment for schools is to make sure that the school staff recognizes what constitutes sexual harassment and uses specific language when addressing any issues.
"I know adultsthere is data that showsaren't really talking about this language use and the reason why they don't is centered on homophobia," Sullivan told Windy City Times.
The report states that many students either experience or witness sexual harassment and do not tell anyone about it for fear of not being taken seriously or nothing being done about it. It also concludes that in order to promote a safe space for students and improve the dialogue on sexual harassment in schools, adults and community members must take proactive steps.
The report suggests that community members try to engage students by organizing workshops, volunteering or contacting school officials to have in-class presentations on empowerment and ways to deal with sexual harassment.
A Chicago-based resource, the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance promotes social justice by offering different programs and resources to address safe spaces and social justice surround student sexual orientation and gender identity. Initiatives include training, consultation, and education for facilitators, among other things.
"The best way to change a school's climateand research shows thisis to get professional development for the adults," Sullivan told Windy City Times.
For more information on the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, visit www.illinoissafeschools.org .