April 6, 2006– Vol. 41, No. 34

Teens probe sexual harassment in schools

Yawu Miller

According to the official sexual harassment policy of the Boston Public Schools, students who think they have been the victims of harassment can report the incident to their principal or any adult they trust in the school.

But when a fellow student pinned Galicia Escarfullery to a wall and tried to kiss her, it was she who ended up in trouble with the principal after she repelled her attacker with a punch in to the face.

“He told me I should have walked away,” Escarfullery said. “I said that I couldn’t walk away. He was holding me. He was trying to kiss me. I couldn’t do anything else to get him off of me.”

In the end, neither Escarfullery nor the boy faced sanction for the incident. But Escarfullery is still angered by the incident and her principal’s apparent unwillingness to follow through on her complaint. At the Hyde Square Task Force, where she works as a youth community organizer, she and other students decided to delve into the issue.

“A lot of the youth workers who were girls were complaining about harassment,” said organizer Jahlil Farmer. “We just all came together and said we should do something about it.”

Two weeks ago, the Task Force organizers began circulating 500 questionnaires to their fellow students to gage the extent of the problem of sexual harassment in the schools.

The questionnaire asks students about a broad range of behaviors from verbal abuse to forced sexual acts. In the more than 200 responses that have come back so far, evidence of sexual harassment seems widespread, according to Maanav Thakore, a community organizer with the Task Force.

“We don’t have any final answers yet, but it’s alarming what we’ve seen so far,” he said. “It’s cause for concern.”

The responses of the questionnaires may come as little surprise to the youth organizers, who began an anti-sexual harassment campaign in the Jamaica Plain area last summer.

“We feel it’s more of a problem in school that it is on the street,” said organizer Ashley Cotton. “With the people who harass you in school, you see them every day.”

Cotton and six other youth organizers spoke to a Banner reporter about what they said was an atmosphere of nearly constant harassment in the schools.

Boys commonly call out to girls as they pass in the hallways in schools, call them out of their names and ask them for sexual favors, the students say.

“Sometimes you don’t even want to go to your locker because there’s a lot of guys standing around,” Cotton said. “They stand in front of your locker and if you won’t talk to them, they won’t move.”

Escarfullery said she had a middle school teacher who often stared at the girls’ body parts and would attempt to rub their shoulders while they were sitting.

“A lot of the girls didn’t know how to take it,” she said. “He was a nice teacher, but nobody felt comfortable around him.”

The surveys being circulated by the organizers ask students whether they have ever reported incidents of sexual harassment.

Boston Public Schools spokesman Jonathan Palumbo said the department’s policy has zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

“Our policy is very clear,” he said. “We don’t tolerate sexual harassment against students. We have a very clear policy in our code of discipline.”

Palumbo said students are required to read the code of discipline, bring it home and have their parent sign it and then bring the signed copy back to school. But the Hyde Square youth organizers say it’s not clear whether many of the students understand the policy or the procedure for filing a complaint.

Thakore said many of the surveys are coming back showing that students are unaware of school policy.

“What we’re seeing already is a lot of people are reporting that they’ve been sexually harassed and they don’t know what to do about it,” he said.

Thakore said the survey results will be tabulated within the next few weeks after all the surveys are collected. The youth organizers plan to discuss the results with school department officials.

“We want to have the statistics so when we bring it to the administration, we have back-up, so we have the numbers,” Cotton said.

“They won’t be able to say it’s just one or two students,” Escarfullery added.



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