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Sexual Harassment Shows Up at School

March 25, 1993|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BOSTON — Imani Romney-Rosa, 16, recalled how a boy stared at her chest and made rude comments when she wore a blue chiffon blouse to school not long ago.

Tina Blanco, 15, said she was sitting in front of her locker, madly finishing an English paper, when a boy kicked her from behind and asked her to engage in a sexual act.

And Adeline Rodine, 17, said she wanted to "beat up" a fellow member of the track team after he grabbed her breasts by way of saying hello.

The three young women, from Boston-area high schools, recounted their experiences in support of a report examining sexual harassment in schools that was released here Wednesday by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

The Wellesley report was based on a survey in the September, 1992, issue of Seventeen magazine. More than 4,200 girls nationwide, 9 to 19, reported that they had been sexually harassed at school. The data were analyzed by researchers from the Center for Research on Women in cooperation with the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Among the report's most disturbing conclusions, according to principal author Nan Stein, were the highly public nature and the frequency of the experiences described by schoolgirls.

"In two-thirds of cases, other people were present," Stein said. "And in 39% of the cases, it goes on every day."

Jokes, whispers and leers were universal, Stein said. "But 83% of the respondents experienced being touched, pinched or grabbed as well."

In 87% of the episodes, schoolgirls said they offered verbal or physical resistance, Stein said.

And although a majority of teachers and administrators did take action, "almost 45% of the time, the schools did not react, meaning that nothing happened to the harasser," Stein said.

Susan McGee Bailey, the center's director, conceded that the anecdotal and self-selected nature of the responses provided no "scientific" basis for an analysis of sexual harassment in schools.

But she called the "pervasive and extremely public" quality of the incidents "shocking" and expressed hope that the report would serve as "a wake-up call for students, parents and school personnel alike."

Bailey said "Secrets in Public," as the report is called, assumed new significance in light of the controversy over the "Spur Posse" episode at Lakewood High School, in which Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators last week accused nine former and current students of rape and other sex crimes involving underage girls.

"The problem is that until now, we have paid no attention to this kind of behavior until it reaches the seriousness of a situation like Lakewood," Bailey said.

In assessing the importance of this first nationwide look at sexual harassment in schools, Helen Neuborneexecutive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, said, "Sexual harassment in the workplace ignited a legal firestorm, and schools are the next battleground.

"Schools must realize that they are not immune to the kind of lawsuits that we've seen in the workplace," she said.

She called schools a training ground for sexual harassment, adding, "Men don't wake up when they are 21 and start sexually harassing women in the workplace. It is learned behavior."

Bailey said it would be difficult to offer historical perspective to this kind of report because "we didn't even know how to define" sexual harassment until very recently.

In the past, "women basically put up and shut up," she said.

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