Changing the way society views and responds to sexual misconduct is possible if children are taught about what behavior is inappropriate at an early age. The results of an annual survey of Hillsborough County middle and high school students show what happens when those lessons aren't well taught or don't stick. The majority of the students said kids did not know how to report sexually inappropriate behavior at their school. This is unacceptable. The district, already under federal mandate to make clear the channels for reporting such behavior, has to do more to ensure that students know what constitutes sexual misconduct and what to do if they have a complaint. Parents also should talk to their children about appropriate boundaries and how to respond if someone crosses the line.
The Tampa Bay Times' Marlene Sokol reported last week that only about 4 in 10 Hillsborough middle and high school students said they and their classmates knew "how to report sexually inappropriate behavior." Schools that recently had high-profile instances of sexually inappropriate behavior recorded some of the lowest portions of students who knew the proper course of action. At Blake High School, for example, only 27 percent of students said they knew what to do in the face of sexual misconduct. Earlier this year, a security officer at the school was fired after allegations of having sex with a student.
Hillsborough school officials signed a resolution with the U.S. Education Department's civil rights office in 2011 that required the district to ensure its students are aware of the protocol for reporting sexually inappropriate behavior. The government, which prohibits sexual misconduct at schools that receive federal money, reviewed the district after a 2007 incident at Middleton High School where a student was suspended after reporting that a teacher had sex with another student. The incident was later verified.
Much of the focus on empowering students to recognize and report sexual misconduct has been targeted at college students, but the lessons should begin much earlier. Children in preschool can learn about inappropriate touching and comments and the importance of telling an authority figure when such behavior occurs. Creating a culture of intolerance for these kinds of violations at an early age lays the groundwork for the explicit rejection of sexual misconduct by society at large. Those lessons should be reinforced at school, where children look to adults to set the tone for acceptable behavior.
Hillsborough County students should know that the district requires them to report sexual misconduct to the principal. They should be able to interact with school leaders with confidence and ease and know that their complaints will be taken seriously. It is not enough to assume that students are getting the message. The results of the Hillsborough survey demonstrate that there is significant work to be done. Teaching children to respect themselves and others, and to report it when someone crosses the line, is just as important as completing the day's prescribed lesson. It is the ultimate preparation for a test students can't afford to fail.