We all hear the stories coming into college— women getting roofied at parties, sexually assaulted while intoxicated, sexually harassed walking home in the dark. The statistic— one in five women experience sexual harassment while in college— is in orientation presentations and periodic newsletters. So naturally, college seems like the time when women are most vulnerable to this type of abuse; at least, that is what is most commonly portrayed in the news and in movies. But sexual harassment starts a lot earlier than college. School employee sexual misconduct happens at the K-12 level at an alarming rate, but what is more alarming is that it’s not getting the attention it deserves because of the discomfort surrounding the discussion.
Though people may find it uncomfortable, there are those who understand the importance of pushing past that— S.E.S.A.M.E. is the organization that is bridging that gap. The advocacy group was formed in 1991, and has its mission embedded in the acronym: to Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation at the K-12 level. According to resources on the S.E.S.A.M.E. website, one in 10 K-12 students is a victim of educator sexual misconduct, and one child sex offender can have as many as 73 victims in their lifetime. With numbers like these, it is obvious that something must be done, and S.E.S.A.M.E. is the only organization of its kind addressing the issue. Their website states that the primary way they aim to prevent school employee sexual misconduct is by stopping a process dubbed “passing the trash.” This term comes from the practice of schools letting guilty educators resign and simply move to another school where they can continue with their career. Other efforts include providing statistics, resources for parents and educators, stories of survivors and, maybe most importantly, creating and promoting innovative and comprehensive legislation.
A key player in the creation of legislation is a member of the Cal Poly community. Statistics professor Billie-Jo Grant is on the Board of Directors and has been involved with S.E.S.A.M.E. for three years. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Research, Statistics, and Evaluation from the University of Virginia and is a skillful researcher with experience conducting academic studies. Pertaining directly to the sexual misconduct issue, she is the lead investigator for a study with the Department of Justice, titled “Sexual Misconduct by School Employees: Policy Implementation and Effectiveness.”
“[Our team] went into five different districts to see what are they doing,” Grant said, elaborating on the process. “All of these districts had an incident so we investigated what policies and procedures they had in place before an incident occured, what might have changed after an incident and what they would recommend for improvements. And we found that a lot of those districts did not update any of their policies and continued to be out of compliance.” After collecting documents, Grant and her team conducted interviews and held focus groups with officials who are directly and indirectly involved in school sexual misconduct abuse and exploitation issues in five districts across the United States. Her work has helped to introduce the legislation in multiple states, with Massachusetts signing it into law last year. When asked about her connection to the cause, Grant said that there were events in her local community which sparked her full recognition of the issue. As is her nature, she began to research further and realized it affects a lot of people, and there wasn’t much tangibly being done. S.E.S.A.M.E. found its way into Grant’s world, and she has been involved ever since.
Terri L. Miller, the current president of S.E.S.A.M.E., believes that the U.S. school system needs to start taking preventative steps, instead of just offering subpar resources after a child has been harmed. She also gave her well-informed opinion on sexual misconduct and why there isn’t more focus at the K-12 level. According to Miller, K-12 school districts are a, “complete failure when it comes to educating on and reinforcing Title IX policies.”
“We are products of our upbringing and if we’re not given the tools to manage these things from a young age, then children who have been abused… [will] carry that with them for the rest of their lives. Then their interactions are skewed,” Miller said. In other words, children must be taught how to protect themselves and their peers from inappropriate and dangerous behavior, which will help them recognize abusive behavior as adults. Creating safer K-12 schools helps children and adolescents to learn in a safe environment as well as prepare them to become conscientious adults. People like Grant and Miller, and organizations like S.E.S.A.M.E, are working towards that reality and encouraging citizens to take steps to make the necessary changes. “In schools[… ]they focus a lot of attention on fire drills, […] earthquake drills and what to do in those dangerous situations,” Miller said. “[Educators] know what to do when a child falls on the playground; there are protocols, there are first response policies in place on what to do. But the first response policy on this issue of sexual harassment and discrimination… there is nothing.”
Sexual misconduct deserves the same intensive protocols and procedures as fire or earthquake drills. Natural disasters are devastating, but so are cases of sexual misconduct— and they happen much more frequently. This issue has affected many, but it has not yet been solved in a systematic way. If this issue is recognized as starting at the K-12 level, it will allow for legislators, educators and peers to take the proper steps for prevention.