As the school year begins, so too will the reports of street and school-based sexual harassment. I remember I was shocked when my daughter, then a sixth-grader, came home shaken by lewd comments shouted at her by a carload of high school boys during her walk home from King Middle School in Portland.

Yes, this happened when she was in the sixth grade. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning, as she and her peers continued to experience harassment throughout their middle and high school years.

Many of our local elementary and middle schools, with the assistance of Portland Defending Childhood, are working hard to prevent, interrupt and respond to in-school bullying and sexual harassment. These efforts and others have a positive impact on school climate and culture – teaching children how to contribute to a healthy, inclusive school environment. Unfortunately, most of these efforts do not extend beyond the school grounds.

So many middle school students carry cellphones, making us, their parents, feel more connected and more comfortable allowing them a greater range of unaccompanied travel. However, as students walk down the sidewalk or ride the bus buried in their phones, they are less connected to and aware of what is going on around them.

Don’t let our reliance upon this single tool make us forget to coach our kids on all of the ways that the community around them can help keep them safer. Walk, bike or drive the route your child takes to school. Note stores that are open, neighbors who are home, public buildings such as libraries, schools, churches and fire stations. Introduce them to people and help them learn how to reach out for help safely.

We often instill in our children a fear of strangers, telling them not to talk or interact in any way with people they do not know. Yet 90 percent of the children who are assaulted or abused are victimized by someone they know, often a family member. In our safety skills classes, we tell children that strangers are just people they haven’t met yet. We teach them to listen and respond to how a person’s words or actions make them feel, rather than to who they are.


Two things any perpetrator needs to persist in a crime are privacy and control. By speaking loudly and drawing attention to the harasser, we take away that privacy and, with it, their sense of control, making it more likely they will cease the behavior.

Teach your child to keep walking toward the next safe place on their route. If they are on a phone, look up and talk loudly, describing the car: “Hey, Mom, there’s some boys in a red Jeep bothering me.” Practice standing tall and saying loudly, “Leave me alone” or “Stop harassing me.”

Tell kids that if they’re walking in a group, they should stay together and stick to the route they know. While it may feel to your student that speaking out will draw attention to them, it is, in fact, drawing the attention of those around them to the harassers.

Remember that harassment, particularly sexual harassment, is not caused by how the person targeted dresses or acts. It is a choice on the part of the perpetrator or perpetrators, one often fueled by the power of a group and delivered from behind the wheel of a car.

Talk with your child about street harassment and what they have experienced. Honor the choices and decisions they have made and together brainstorm additional responses. Contact other parents and your school to discuss the issue, and involve your community policing officer and staff from your local high school. The recently instituted, toll-free National Street Harassment Hotline (855-897-5910) is another great source of information and support.

Middle school is a time of expanding horizons, greater awareness and responsibility. Sexual harassment is a community issue – one that will end only when all see the behavior as unacceptable rather than as an expected corollary to puberty or a rite of passage for either the victims or the perpetrators. Let’s shine a light on this behavior and be clear in voicing our expectations of and for the youth in our lives.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: