A. Sexual Harassment Against Black Girls at School

Sexual harassment in schools has a disparate impact on Black girls and young women. Their harassment is often more public, more violent, and inflicts longer-term damage than that of their non-black peers. For a variety of possible reasons, Black girls also respond more directly and physically to being sexually harassed. Instead of acknowledging these responses as coping and defense mechanisms, school staff and administrators often misperceive Black girls and young women as aggressors and punish them inappropriately.

When I was teaching in Philadelphia, one of my students, Tyisha , told me of the harassment she underwent from peers at school for having a curvy body--she was taunted on a daily basis and called a “slut.” While school was becoming increasingly difficult from this sexual harassment, Tyisha was also facing violence at home from her physically abusive father. Tyisha's teachers called Child Protective Services under the guise of support and as mandatory reporters, but they also blamed her, saying to her face that she brought on the conflict herself by running away from home so often and acting out with boys. In one particularly horrific incident, a younger boy touched Tyisha's genitals against her will on the school bus. When she reported the incident, police officers stationed at the school questioned the boy who said that she had assaulted him. In response, the police put Tyisha under arrest for being eighteen years old and sexually assaulting an under-age boy. Although they eventually released her without charges, this event so traumatized Tyisha that she took classes over the summer in order to graduate from high school early. Tyisha's story is one of thousands in which African American girls are sexually harassed and then uniquely disadvantaged by the prevalence of the criminal justice system in their lives.

In 1993, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Education Fund commissioned the first-ever survey on school-based sexual harassment with a nationally representative sample of 1,632 public school adolescents. The study found a shockingly high prevalence of sexual harassment in American schools, which lead to an emerging niche of scholars interested in the problem in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the topic of sexual harassment against women in the workforce continued to overshadow research and publicity on sexual harassment against children and adolescents in school and the responsibility of schools to intervene under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (“Title IX”).

More recently in 2001, the AAUW again commissioned a study of sexual harassment in schools and compared their new findings to those from 1993. In the opinion of the AAUW, the study's most important finding was that, of the 2,064 eighth to eleventh grade participants, girls remained much more likely than boys to experience sexual harassment--proof that sexual harassment in school is a form of gendered violence that disproportionately affects girls and young women. The AAUW framed this conclusion in a way that suggested gender is not only a--but the--determining factor in who experiences sexual harassment at school. In fact, Nan Stein summarized the AAUW study, stating that “[t] his rigorous survey firmly established that there was a universal culture of sexual harassment with no significant racial differences flourishing in America's secondary schools.”

While the AAUW's 2001 survey shared critical findings about sexual harassment in schools and the overwhelming effects on girls, a more nuanced read of those results emerged when data were broken down by both gender and race. In contrast to Nan Stein's reading of the survey, an intersectional analysis of the findings teases out the grim reality that many Black girls and young women face in schools today. For example, Black girls were more likely than Latina or White girls to be sexually harassed in a physical manner--i.e. touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way; to have someone pull at their clothing in a sexual way; and to be forced to kiss someone. Participants reported that physical harassment is twice as upsetting as nonphysical sexual harassment, suggesting that the physical nature of sexual harassment against Black girls has disproportionately negative psychological effects.

Black girls and young women also reported being sexually harassed in the most public and visible spaces. The majority of sexual harassment occurred in the hall and the classroom, and Black girls in particular were more likely than their peers to be harassed on public transportation to and from school and in the cafeteria. Black girls and young women reported feeling self-conscious, embarrassed, afraid, and less confident as a result of being sexually harassed. In addition, Black girls were more likely than White girls to say they would complain to a school employee about another student sexually harassing them.

Recently, in an ongoing study of the sexual victimization of African American girls, 60 percent of the respondents reported having been sexually assaulted by the age of eighteen. When understood together, Black girls and young women experience some of the highest levels of sexual harassment at school and have a heightened risk of gendered violence in their communities. The traumatic effects of such visible and targeted violence produce a daunting reality about the racialized aspects of gender-based violence and sexual harassment in schools. Additionally, the lack of institutional support and severity of violence place unique pressure on Black girls and young women to address sexual harassment without adequate help.

For these reasons and more, Black girls tend to cope differently with victimization experienced at school. In the AAUW's 2001 study, Black girls were the most likely to change their group of friends and perversely, the most likely to get in trouble with authorities as a result of being sexually harassed. Dr. Jody Miller, Professor at the Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, also found in her case study of African American girls in St. Louis that experiencing sexual harassment at school had “tangible negative outcomes . . . including harmful effects on school performance, the curtailment of social networks, peer rejection, and negative emotional outcomes.”

Often misperceiving Black girls' and young women's self-defense as aggression, school officials frequently punish victimized Black girls and young women. Implicit biases that Black girls are more aggressive and thus less deserving of sympathy than girls of other races compound this problem. Furthermore, research has shown that African American girls are most likely to confront sexual harassment, whereas White girls are more likely to use “internal or indirect responses.”

Decision makers, policy makers, families, communities, media, scholars, and all of society must acknowledge that violence against Black girls in school is a crisis. African American girls experience sexual harassment and gendered violence at some of the highest rates; a risk that may be heightened by real or perceived LGBTQ status, disability, pregnancy, poverty, lack of school resources, and over-policing in Black communities. The next Section analyzes the current approaches for solving the crisis of school-based sexual harassment and why they are failing Black girls and young women.