'#MeTooK12' aims to shine a light on abuse in schools

'#MeTooK12' aims to shine a light on abuse in schools

Originally created for women to call attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, the "#MeToo" hashtag is adding a new dimension — this time as a campaign focused on school-age children.

Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit, rebranded the hashtag to "#MeTooK12," hoping the new tag launched today will encourage "victims of sexual harassment and assault by peers or school staff to share their experiences while they attended K-12 schools."

Some might find the idea of underage children facing sexual assault or harassment hard to believe, but Adelaide Aime, executive director of Urbana-based Rape Advocacy, Counseling & Education Services, isn't one of them.

"We definitely get calls from underage folks, and we try to help them the best we can," Aime said. "I think people would be surprised at how often this is happening to young people."

To illustrate the need for the hashtag, SSAIS cites statistics from a 2011 study by the American Association of University Women. In it, 48 percent of interviewed students in grades 7-12 reported experiencing some form of sex-based harassment, be it physical, cyber or verbal.

Despite that, the AAUW also reported that many schools claim to have never received any reports of harassment.

Data from the 2013-14 school year in Illinois revealed that nearly 1,500 schools reported zero incidents the entire year.

Reported numbers are low for the Champaign-Urbana area as well.

When asked for documentation of sexual harassment or assault incidents, the Champaign school district reported one incident of sexual assault during the 2016-17 school year. Harassment incidents were not provided in the available documentation.

Erin Ludwick, assistant principal of discipline and attendance at Urbana High, said the school had two reports coded as "harassment" from this school year.

"The first incident is coded as harassment," she said. "If it was a repeated action, it would be coded as bullying, and we have not had any bullying reports this year."

A rise in reports

Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods said he has seen the number of reports at his school rise, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Middle school students are still learning how to conduct themselves, and Woods said they have to learn what kinds of actions and words are acceptable.

Incident reports can also create opportunities to teach proper behavior, he said.

"What usually happens is a boy says something inappropriate, or possibly what I call soliciting," Woods said.

The exact number of complaints raised by this kind of behavior is unknown due to technical difficulties, Woods said. To help document and resolve complaints, Urbana Middle School issues forms to parents or students and asks them to record the date, names of involved students, location of the alleged incident and whether the action was based on race, sex, disability, religion or gender.

Earlier this year, the school attempted to make the form available online, but Woods said the website crashed, and the records of complaints are mixed between paper and electronic forms.

"My plan for this year is that it all would be available electronically, but due to technical difficulties, we're still using the paper forms," he said. "But the forms have helped make things more transparent."

After a complaint is submitted, the administration will decide whether it meets the school board's criteria for bullying, intimidation or harassment, then mark it on the form.

"I tell parents, 'You have a right to see this form,'" Woods said. "If you want to see this form, you can."

Although numbers weren't readily available, Woods said putting the form online has led to higher numbers of incidents reported.

'Thank heaven for #MeToo'

Sara Sanders, principal at Champaign's Franklin Middle School, said interpreting what a high number of reports means isn't as straightforward as it might seem.

"Part of it is empowering students to speak up and get with their support network," Sanders said. "That's why the relationships we have in our schools is important. We have to have people who make students feel safe."

SSAIS says the problem with sexual harassment in schools doesn't end with incident reporting.

According to the nonprofit, one potential danger of students reporting incidents is that the incident may not be resolved fairly — or at all.

The 1972 implementation of Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination in schools, requires all schools receiving federal funding to respond to and correct incidents of discrimination or harassment.

But not all schools do, according to the SSAIS. To call national attention to the issue, the nonprofit is officially launching the #MeTooK12 campaign online today, hoping to prompt survivor stories as well as make people aware of their options should a school fail to comply with Title IX.

In the meantime, Aide said one of the most important things a parent or guardian can do is listen to what a child is trying to tell them.

"Being open to what your teen is saying can be hard, but it's the most important thing," Aide said.

And if a social-media campaign seems trite, Aide said it's important to remember the impact the original #MeToo hashtag created.

"A hashtag is amazing — think about the conversations that have gone on in the last six months that wouldn't have gone on a year ago," she said. "Thank heaven for #MeToo."

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