If a child has been sexually harassed or abused by a peer or adult in school, she needs to know her rights. Sexual harassment is all too common in middle and high schools across the country. A recent professional survey found that nearly half of all students had been sexually harassed in school. Being harassed can affect a girl’s ability to focus on her work, feel secure and confident and ultimately succeed in her studies. Here are some answers to common questions.
What do you mean by sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment at school can include making verbal or written comments, making gestures, displaying picture or images, using physical coercion, or any combination of these actions. It can take place in person or through electronic means such as text messages and social media. School staff can be harassers, but student peer-to-peer sexual harassment makes up the bulk of sexual harassment at middle and high schools.
If a student has been harassed or abused in school, what should she do?
The first thing she should do is report it to her school counselor or the administration. She may be afraid to do that because of retaliation by the perpetrator, so she may need her parent’s help to report it, or she can report it anonymously. Schools are supposed to have “bully boxes” or ways to anonymously report bullying or harassment. Ideally, she should report it in writing, even in an email to principal or counselor. If she is sexually violated in school, she should go to a teacher or administrator who she trusts. All schools are obligated to investigate and document bullying or harassment claims even if they’re not sure they are true under federal (Title IX and the Cleary Act) and state law.
If a girl reports abuse, can she be questioned without the presence of a parent or guardian?
Yes, a minor can be questioned without her parent’s presence about bullying, harassment or even sexual assault. That’s because schools have a legal responsibility to ensure that students are safe and are in a condition to attend and benefit from their education. However, the law is not black and white in this area, and schools must balance their interests in conducting an interview to protect students with the student’s privacy rights, age and the urgency of the situation.
Do you mean that if a girl has allegedly been sexually assaulted or raped in school, she can be questioned about sexually explicit information without a parent being there?
Yes. Because sexual assault happens behind closed doors, and the facts often aren’t clear before the questioning begins, minors can be questioned without their parents. However, NOT JUST ANYONE IS ALLOWED TO QUESTION YOUR CHILD ABOUT SEXUAL ABUSE. The interviewer must be trained in forensic methods
If a minor is the alleged victim of sexual abuse, who can question her?
This varies by school district, but in Miami-Dade Public Schools neither the school police nor any other employee of the school board can question a minor about any kind of abuse. School personnel must report suspected abuse perpetrated by anyone to: 1. The Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) Child Abuse Hotline at 1800-96-ABUSE; 2. A school administrator; and 3. The Miami Dade School Police. NO SCHOOL BOARD EMPLOYEE (Including the Miami Dade School Police) IS ALLOWED TO QUESTION A MINOR ABOUT CHILD ABUSE. Once abuse is alleged, the child must be questioned ONLY BY DCF, COUNTY LAW ENFORCEMENT (i.e., the Miami Dade Police Department) or someone else trained to do forensic interviews of abused children.
Who is required to call the parent and when?
Because only DCF and the county police department are trained to investigate child abuse, only they can contact the parent or guardian, not the school administration. They are supposed to contact you within a reasonable time of starting the investigation. Questioning of your child should not go on for hours without you being called.
What if my child is questioned by school personnel or the school police about sexual abuse?
Many parents do not want their child being questioned by school personnel or the school police because they are not trained to do so. If a child is not questioned by a trained individual, the prosecution of the perpetrator could be jeopardized. Depending upon her age, you may want to tell your daughter not to answer any questions made to her in school about sexual or physical abuse. Teach her to say that she wants DCF to be called and for DCF to call her parent. She may have to repeat those requests over and over until she is heard.
If my child has been abused in school, what do I do to get help?
If she’s been raped, take her to the hospital or a rape treatment center to get a “rape kit” and tested and treated for any sexually transmitted disease. You should seek counseling for her. Kristi House is a local non-profit that provides free therapy for the victims of child sexual abuse. You child should return to school (even if it’s a different school) as soon as possible. Returning to normalcy, being with peers and not getting too far behind academically is very important.