Sexual Harrassment in Schools: More Common Than You Think


“I didn’t want to go to school.”  “I felt sick to my stomach.”  “I had a hard time studying.”  “I had trouble sleeping.”

These are some of the negative emotional effects commonly reported by grade 7-12 girls and boys who have experienced sexual harassment at school.  A nationally representative survey conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) showed that nearly half (48 percent) of students in this age cohort experienced sexual harassment during the 2010-2011 school year – including 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys.  

Yet recent data aggregated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights shows that sexual harassment is significantly underreported in schools, compared with survey findings reported in AAUW’s research report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. For AAUW’s analysis of the OCR sex-based data in the 20 largest U.S. school districts, click here.

What sorts of sexual harassment had surveyed students faced?

In Person

  • Having someone make unwelcome sexual comments, jokes, or gestures to or about the student
  • Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way
  • Being touched in an unwelcome sexual way
  • Having someone flash or expose oneself to the student
  • Being shown sexy or sexual pictures that the student did not want to see
  • Being physically intimidated in a sexual way
  • Being forced to do something sexual


  • Being sent unwelcome sexual comments, jokes,  or pictures or having someone post them of or about the student
  • Having someone spread unwelcome sexual rumors about the student
  • Being called gay or lesbian in a negative way

The majority of survey participants (54 percent) said that they were harassed by a single male student, 12 percent by a group of male students, 14 percent by a single female student,  5 percent by a group of female students, and 11 percent by a mixed group of female and male students.  Significantly, 16 percent of surveyed students admitted that they had sexually harassed a peer.

Sexual harassment interferes with students’ educational opportunities, and the legal definition of sexual harassment clearly differentiates it from bullying. According to case law, sexual harassment is defined as unwanted sexual behavior that interferes with a student’s right to receive an equal education and is a form of sexual discrimination per Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Whether in person or online and whether verbal or physical, sexual harassment negatively impacts the educational experience of victims. According to the AAUW survey, some victims got into trouble at school as a result; others changed the way that they went to and from school.  Some quit activities or sports or took different hallways to get to classes. Some stayed home from school while others changed schools altogether.

Surveyed students offered a vast array of recommendations for reducing sexual harassment at school. 

  • Create a way for students to report problems anonymously.
  • Have punishments for people who harass and enforce them.
  • Appoint a teacher or guidance counselor as the contact for this issue.
  • Hold in-class discussions.
  • Offer workshops at school on the topic.
  • Offer information online about sexual harassment.

In addition to an analysis of survey results, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School offers a vast array of recommendations for sexual harassment prevention for school administrators, educators, students, community groups, and parents and other concerned adults.  

You can download the report for free at




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