Sexual Harassment and School Safety: How Safe Do Students Feel?

TORONTO – The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)‘s Dr. David Wolfe has just released new research on school violence, sexual harassment and bullying conducted at 23 schools in southwestern Ontario. This report is timely, considering the recently released report “The Road to Health” by Julian Falconer and the School Community Safety Advisory Panel highlighted the need to improve our understanding and appreciation of these serious issues in order to address them in the most effective and expeditious ways possible.

CAMH’s Center for Prevention Science surveyed 1,819 Grade 9 and 11 students in both rural and city schools between 2004 and 2007 to measure both the victimization and perpetration of harassment and bullying and overall school safety. The data collected and released in a report today shows some cause for concern.

When surveyed on sexual pressures, four percent of males in grade 11 admitted trying to force someone to have sex with them, while 10 percent of males and 27 percent of females admitted being pressured into doing something sexual that they did not want to. Not surprisingly, the data shows that girls are feeling this pressure more than boys, with 15 percent reporting that they had oral sex just to avoid having intercourse.

In terms of sexual harassment in school, girls were much more likely to report having received sexual comments, unwanted looks or touches, and having parts of their body commented on or rated. In contrast, boys were much more likely to report being called homophobic insults (such as “gay” or “fag”) than girls (e.g., “lezzie,” “dyke”). Unfortunately, this pattern of homophobic insults continued mostly unchanged from grade 9 (34 percent) to grade 11 (30 percent) for boys, but declined by almost half for girls, from 22 percent to 12 percent.

Twenty-nine percent of grade nine girls and 33 percent of grade nine boys reported feeling unsafe at school in the past month. “Going to high school today is like running the gauntlet,” said David Wolfe, principal investigator and director of CAMH’s Center for Prevention Science in London, Ontario. “Yet the high school years are some of the most important in terms of development.”

According to the survey, 16 percent of girls and 32 percent of boys reported being physically harmed (on or off school property), while ten percent of girls and 25 percent of boys admit to being the perpetrators of such violence. And in a trend that has emerged with the widespread use of the Web and social networking sites, 12 percent of males and 14 percent of females reported being harassed over the Internet.

“Adolescence is confusing enough, but when you couple this with peer pressure and self esteem issues, some youth can be easily overwhelmed,” said Dr. Wolfe today. “This is a time of life when youth may first start to experiment with drug use and sex – which can be difficult especially when you consider that kids are just learning how to socialize with one another in a more mature context.”

Dr. Wolfe cautions that the effect of what happens in high school today can take a significant toll. “All these behaviors, from physical violence to verbal harassment, can be harmful and have serious effects on their well-being. Bullying and harassment are well known to affect an individual’s health and adjustment, including problems such as depression, substance use, anxiety and academic failure,” he said.

“It is crucial that schools find ways to address these forms of abuse and violence, so that youth feel safe at school. Students need to know that the lines of communication are open and they can speak to school administrators and parents about their problems. And we need to be open and honest with kids and arm them with the necessary tools to make healthy decisions.”

Based on these and previous findings, the new report points out that there is ample evidence to conclude that harassment and abuse are occurring at high rates among high school students. Although many of these behaviors are not as visible or extreme as other forms of violence, these acts of “everyday violence” are likely to have significant impact on the lives of youth. While some of these behaviors show a decline over the course of adolescence (such as hitting others), it is clear that students worry about their safety throughout high school.

On a positive note, the researchers emphasize that many school boards across the province are listening more to students and responding to their concerns. Schools are playing a more active role in violence prevention and promoting healthy relationships by implementing innovative school-based programs and curricula as well as involving community professionals. Students, parents and staff have to be partners in ensuring school safety. It’s never too early to start – many of these negative patterns begin in elementary school, and the long-term solution will involve education that teaches positive relationship skills and respect for others.

“It’s never too early to start – many of these negative patterns of harassment begin in elementary school, and the long-term solution will involve education that teaches positive relationship skills and respect for others,” Dr. Wolfe added.

The Center for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) is Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital, as well as one of the world’s leading research centers in the area of addiction and mental health. CAMH combines clinical care, research, education, policy development, prevention and health promotion to transform the lives of people affected by mental health and addiction issues.


CAMH Feb. 6 press release

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