K-12 students across America are witnessing and experiencing sexual and domestic violence at alarming rates.
January 7, 2019
Traumatized and fearful of the prospect of having to take classes along with her perpetrator, she reported the incident to a teacher. Though school administrators acknowledged that Brenda had suffered sexual assault, they downplayed the detrimental impact that experience could have on her well-being and continued educational development.
It wasn’t long before Brenda was back in class with the person who assaulted her. When her mother called the school to complain, the principal told her “the conflict between the two of them should really be over by now.” So, Brenda continued to suffer. She suffered from bullying by the perpetrator’s friends, panic attacks and other symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and was even written up for dress code violations by a school official who she felt was targeting her for speaking out. Unsurprisingly, Brenda’s grades soon started to drop.
For years advocates for survivors of gender-based violence have been sounding the alarm that K-12 students across America are witnessing and experiencing sexual and domestic violence at alarming rates. According to Break the Cycle, an organization that addresses teen dating violence, more than 80 percent of high school guidance counselors say they feel ill-equipped to deal with disclosures of gender-based violence. A recent report from the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law reflects similarly troubling findings: across Illinois, where the Shriver Center is based, school officials tasked with preparing students for future success largely have no expertise or clear policies to adequately support those children who are struggling with trauma while trying to learn.
In fact, despite a 2007 Illinois law requiring training for teachers, guidance counselors, and others likely to deal with students who’ve survived domestic and sexual violence, training is not taking place. In the absence of such training or any clear policies, K-12 student survivors of gender-based violence in the state say they are often re-traumatized by school personnel. The stories, like Brenda’s, are disheartening. One survivor heard teachers speaking to other students about her sexual assault. Another disclosed her experience with domestic violence and had the details recounted over the school intercom (school officials wanted to offer their “best wishes”).
Many of the students describe being bullied by their peers after similar breeches of confidentiality. Others were faced with school officials who dismissed their experiences or threatened to tell their parents against their wishes — even when the perpetrator was a parent. As a consequence of these haphazard, inexpert, and often traumatizing responses, a number of the students who shared their stories for the report ended up dropping out of school.Service providers who were interviewed also revealed that most school personnel do not understand the requirements for reporting abuse and neglect situations to the state’s child welfare agency.
Schools and policymakers have begun to probe a similar lack of survivor-centered policy and guidelines in Chicago Public Schools, most recently in response to news reports about the CPS administration’s failure to protect students who’ve experienced sexual assault. CPS is now working with city stakeholders and advocates, including the Women’s Law and Policy Initiative at the Shriver Center, to address its policy lapses and better serve students. But it would be a mistake to limit a comprehensive response to these kinds of inadequacies only to schools in Chicago, or even in Illinois.
Without clear policies in school to support young people who’ve experienced domestic or sexual violence, millions of students across the country are left vulnerable to long-term effects of trauma which make it harder for them to succeed academically. Children who’ve experienced sexual abuse are at higher risk for experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse problems. Witnessing domestic violence as a child has similarly negative impacts on mental health and is also correlated with poor school performance. For students from low-income families who have even less resources to support their healing, the stakes are even higher.
Every student deserves the support they need to do succeed, and written policies for responding to and accommodating student survivors in K-12 schools is the first step to building that support. As the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education continues to chip away at survivor-centered policies under Title IX, the law which prohibits sex discrimination in schools, the implementation of clear protocols and training at the state and local school level is now more critical than ever.
We can’t wait any longer. Our children need our support, so they can succeed in school and in the future.
*Not her real name.
Ishena Robinson contributed to this blog.