Students weigh in on sexual harassment at school

Recent reports say female students in the Toronto District School Board experience harassment daily, but this does not seem to be the case in local high schools according to students surveyed.

Of 15 high schoolers interviewed by the Observer, many said they had never witnessed or heard about any acts of sexual harassment at school.

But this may have something to do with their definition of it.

Unwanted sexual contact was the most popular definition amongst those students. However, sexual comments and catcalls were left almost entirely out of the discussion or viewed as non-threatening.

“If it’s not touching, it’s not going to hurt me,” said a Grade 12 male student at Sir Oliver Mowat C.I.

Other students agreed, and think comments are “no big deal.”

A popular defence was that guys and girls were “just joking” with one another. Students said the definition depended on the people involved and how familiar they were with each other.

Some people witness acts of sexual harassment at home or in other settings on a regular basis, making them think its acceptable behaviour, said Dorrett Miller, training resource and outreach coordinator at Assaulted Women’s Helpline.

Even if they understand that it is wrong, “a lot of them might not come forward because of embarrassment.”

“Unless it was very serious, like rape, I would probably just deal with it myself,” said Rachel, a Grade 12 student at Woburn C.I.

A pamphlet called Know Your Rights and Responsibilities, meant to help students identify acts of sexual harassment and who to turn to was reportedly handed out to all students, said Donna Quan, school board superintendent of Safe Schools.

Tom Lazarou, principal of Mowat Collegiate said the in-school Empowered Student Partnership and other student equity groups have various campaigns throughout the year to raise awareness.

Despite the efforts of the board and individual schools, some students don’t seem to take the issue seriously.

A group of Grade 12 drama students at Mowat chuckled in agreement when a few girls suggested that if a Grade 9 student were sexually harassed – they were probably “asking for it.”

“No one ever asks for it. The perpetrators always try to blame someone else because they don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions,” Dorrett said.
“It’s always somebody that they know, somebody that is close to them.

Quan recognizes that students receive a lot of print material and suggests they address administration about new initiatives.

However, there are still students who doubt the concern of school officials.

“I think the school could care less, with the exception of a few staff members, unless the parents make a complaint,” said Alex, a Grade 11 Mowat student.