This past week, Dr. Janet Rosenzweig, our Vice-President of Programs and Services, was asked to be a source for a Washington Post article describing a series of sexual abuse cases in a suburban Washington, D.C. school district. The investigative work of reporters to keep these issues in the public “spotlight” and to hold school officials accountable is critical. But since April is Child abuse Prevention month, Janet couldn’t let the opportunity pass without sharing with adults everywhere some steps they might take to help reduce the chances of a similar case happening in their district. How? We can start by understanding the concept of “sexual climate” in a school.
How’s the ‘sexual climate’ of your child’s school?
Most of us pay no attention to the weather unless something extraordinary happens — a horrible storm, or a gloriously sunny day in the middle of winter. Likewise, most people pay no attention to the sexual climate in the places they spend their time each day until something doesn’t feel right. Maybe the jokes are just a little bit too risqué, displays of affection are too intense, or questionable photos are hanging over a colleague’s desk; something just feels creepy. A lot of adults relate this concept to their workplace, but few of us recognize that it also applies to our kids’ schools.
Kids spend most of their waking hours in school, and schools each have their own climate or “social feel.” A school’s “culture” would be its policies, procedures, rules and regulations, while school “climate” refers to how it actually feels to be in a school. This is a difficult concept for people who have spent time in few schools, but the differences can be vast. Researchers use variations in school climate to predict outcomes like academic achievement, rates of bullying, and sexual health and safety.
What is a healthy sexual climate?
Every school has a physical, social, affective and academic environment, and they can all relate to sexual health and safety. Here are some examples of what we don’t want in the school climate:
- Children terrified to change clothes in the locker room or walk through certain corridors;
- A popular teacher texting favorite students;
- A teacher who routinely covers the window from her classroom into the hallways;
- Sexual slurs used with impunity; and/or
- A bus driver whose hand brushes against a student’s butt as she exits.
On the other hand, here are some examples of what we hope for:
- Faculty and staff who understand the psychosexual developmental stages of their students and have appropriate expectations;
- An air of mutual respect between genders, between adults and students, between administration and staff and people of different sexual orientation;
- Locker room and bathroom privacy with age-appropriate adult supervision; and
- Parents who model and reinforce these ideals at home.
A school with a healthy sexual climate promotes tolerance and respect, and the faculty and staff respond quickly to real or perceived threats including rumor, overly private classrooms (for example windows to the hallway covered over) innuendo and bullying.
Why is it important to understand sexual climate?
To eliminate student-staff sexual relationships: A 2004 report commissioned by the US Department of Education, still considered the most authoritative study on this topic concluded that at least 5 percent of students report sexual contact with school personnel by the time they graduate. High-profile cases of student-teacher sexual relationships are making the news more frequently, but their incidence is not new at all. No parent wants to consider the awful possibility of their child in a sexual relationship with an adult charged with their care. A school with an unhealthy sexual climate can provide cover for predators disguised as a popular aide, teacher or coach.
To improve learning: A school owes your child accurate, unbiased and age-appropriate education on topics where sex and sexuality have a role. Art and history, for example, join anatomy and physiology as topics requiring a healthy sexual climate for learning.
To stop bullying: No child can learn when he or she feels unsafe. An unhealthy sexual climate may show itself in girls who fear being fondled when walking through crowded halls, boys terrified of locker room antics or sexual-minority youth being targeted for bullying or physical violence.
What can a parent do? Open communication with your children is important here, as it is with many parenting issues. Pay attention to how students and teachers speak and behave when you visit the school, and don’t just visit on parent-teacher days. Use this checklist to help assess the sexual climate in your child’s school and contact school officials if you have any concern. Remember, the climate of any organization is determined by its members, and parents are very important members of a school community.
Want to know more? Check out Dr. Rosenzweig’s books for parents on promoting sexual health and safety. Proceeds from the sales of this book will be donated back to Prevent Child Abuse America to help fund sexual abuse prevention programs!