CHINA – I have always been disgusted when I read about adults sexually harassing children.

This behavior is far too prevalent.

What saddens me just as much, and in some ways even more, is the widespread amount of sexual harassment among schoolchildren.

You see, I’ve been reading a new study published by the American Association of University Women called “Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School.”

This report documents the high incidence of sexual harassment among students in grades 7-12 throughout the country.

The report is available at www.AAUW.org.

According to the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, which can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors or other verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.”

“Crossing the Line” provides fresh evidence about students’ experiences with sexual harassment, including being harassed, harassing someone else, or witnessing harassment during the school year.

“Crossing the Line” documents the unfortunate fact that sexual harassment is part of everyday life in middle and high schools.

Nearly half (48 percent) of students surveyed experienced some form of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year, and 87 percent of those students said it had a negative effect on them.

Verbal harassment (unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures) made up the bulk of the incidents, but physical harassment was far too common.

Sexual harassment by text, email, Facebook or other electronic media affected 30 percent of students.

Worse yet, many of the students who were sexually harassed through cyberspace also were sexually harassed in person.

Girls were more likely than boys to be sexually harassed both in person (52 percent vs. 35 percent) and via text, email, Facebook, or other electronic media (36 percent vs. 24 percent).

Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way is a form of sexual harassment that girls and boys reported in equal numbers (18 percent of students).

Witnessing sexual harassment at school also was common.

One-third of girls and one-quarter of boys observed sexual harassment at their school in the 2010-11 school year.

More than 56 percent of these students witnessed sexual harassment more than once during the school year.

Sexual harassment can have negative effects on students.

Both seeing and being the target of sexual harassment affects students. Their sense of safety is lowered.

Witnessing sexual harassment at school also may “normalize” the behavior for bystanders.

The most prevalent student reactions included not wanting to go to school, staying home from school, having difficulty studying, feeling sick and having trouble sleeping.

Some students actually switched schools.

This harassment is clearly hurting the education of the affected students.

The overarching message is that middle and high schools have a pervasive climate of harassment. Too many students were made to feel wrong, inadequate or outside the norm.

While there is no universal cure for this problem, much more needs to be done.

I write today in the hopes that readers will take this information and a copy of “Crossing the Line” to the administrators and educators in their communities and schools.

Studies show that if administrators tolerate sexual harassment or do nothing to deal with it, teachers and students have less incentive and less support to do anything about it.

It is vital that schools have anti-sexual harassment policies in place and that they are enforced.

Parents should be informed about the policies.

Educators and school staff members should be trained to handle sexual-harassment cases in a sensitive and appropriate way.

Teachers, administrators and counselors need to host workshops, assemblies, classroom discussions or other programs to make sure students understand what sexual harassment is both in person and online).

Students need to know how to respond to sexual harassment and the policies of their school regarding these behaviors.

Each school must have a person to administer the school’s sexual-harassment policy and receive complaints, and students need to know who that contact is.

Sexual harassment does not need to be part of everyday life for children. We all have a role to play in making their learning experiences safer and more rewarding. 

Bets Brown is public policy chair of American Association of University Women of Maine and a resident of China.