Schools with significant class engagement and more disciplinary structure may protect students from the downstream effects of sexual harassment, such as depression, substance use and even suicide, according to trailblazing research from University of Virginia investigators inspired by the #MeToo movement.
"At the crux of why this work is important ... is the #MeToo movement. I think the movement has to start in school — that's my baseline of theory with this work," Brittany Z. Crowley, a researcher at the University of Virginia and co-author of the paper, told The Academic Times. Crowley and her colleagues surveyed 85,750 students in all of Virginia's public high schools — 322, to be exact. The study was published April 27 in School Mental Health.
The #MeToo movement, a cultural awakening around sexual harassment, began in 2017, with accusations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein. After a flood of Hollywood actresses came forward with allegations of intimidation or assault in the workplace, women all around the country, and the world, spoke up about their own experiences. A less well-known #MeTooK12 hashtag created at the same time renewed the focus of sexual harassment work in schools, Crowley said.
"I always viewed violence and aggression as an important way to explain and understand human behavior," Crowley said. Her interest in victimization was sparked after research on how juvenile delinquents are perceived. "When I started my Ph.D., I got really interested in sexual victimization among students because we are based in the School of Education, and so our research, while forensically focused, is school-based," she explained. While many similar studies have focused on bullying, a related yet distinct phenomenon, Crowley and her team were the first to look at how school climate moderates sexual harassment among students.
The students in grades nine through 12 answered 100 questions about their experience in school and about the structure of the school itself. "Students who perceive their schools as structured may have greater trust in the system," the authors stated in the paper.
To ensure that the data was representative of the high schools as a whole, schools either invited all ninth- through 12th-grade students to participate or randomly chose 25 students in each grade to complete the survey. The two barriers to entry were language and ability, because students needed to complete the questions in either English or Spanish and could not complete it if they had an intellectual or physical disability.
Importantly, the racial and economic breakdown of the final sample was broadly representative of both the state's demographics and the U.S. population as a whole; 52.5% of the students were white and 15.1% of them were Black or African-American compared with 60.1% non-Hispanic white and 13.4% Black or African-American in U.S. census data. A common metric for the socioeconomic status of students is the percentage eligible for free or reduced-price meals, which was 32.1% in the current study and 43.2% in participating Virginia schools.
Sexual harassment was examined by asking students four items covering behaviors that are relevant in school settings — though the authors emphasized that these few items are far from a comprehensive set of all sexual harassment behaviors. Students were asked about the number of times within the past year that they had faced nonphysical harassment — for example, being pestered to date another student. Unwanted physical contact was also included.
Student well-being and school climate were surveyed in a similar fashion. A short list of items measured topics ranging from the perceived fairness of school discipline to moods associated with depression. One question asked students whether adults at the school were too strict, while another asked how often the students had felt hopeless during the previous 30 days.
The study found that sexual harassment was not just present — it was widespread. Forty-one percent of students reported at least one incident of sexual harassment in the previous 12 months, which works out to about 35,000 students just at Virginia's public high schools, Crowley said. Sexual comments, jokes or gestures took the lead as the most common form of harassment. Importantly, however, this number was moderated by the school climate.
"Perhaps the most impactful of the findings would be the relationship with student suicide attempts, because that's obviously a really heavy, high-stakes topic," Crowley said. In less supportive schools, the rate of attempted suicide for students who experienced harassment was 22%. In more supportive schools, the rate among those students dropped drastically, falling to just 6%.
Not only was the suicide rate affected by school climate, but substance use was, too. Just 6% of students who were harassed in more structured schools used marijuana, compared with 25% in less structured schools. Although cannabis law in Virginia will change in July 2021, the substance was still illegal in that jurisdiction when the study was conducted in 2020, so the students were risking legal trouble or possible arrest at a much higher rate in less structured schools.
"Student perceptions of school climate can buffer the negative effects of victimization they experience," the authors noted in the study. Crowley and her colleagues said that this finding was consistent with studies on bullying and aligns with previous research on how transformative someone's environment can be after they experience harassment.
"Those who feel more engaged in their schools likely have better access to social support and can rely on a sense of belongingness [to] help them overcome adversity," the authors noted. They believe students in this situation may be able to rely on peers or adults for positive coping strategies instead of turning to marijuana, alcohol and other problematic outlets.
"These individuals are learning and developing behaviors in school that may or may not persist into adulthood," Crowley said. "Studies like this one could possibly lay the foundation for future intervention work with students who are harassing others or being victimized in adolescence. Prevention must start before we get to #MeToo in the workplace or in Hollywood."
The study, "School climate moderates the association between sexual harassment and student well‐being," published April 27 in School Mental Health, was authored by Brittany Z. Crowley, Dewey Cornell and Timothy Konold, University of Virginia.