Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Public Awareness

Bulletins - Winter 2012 OPDV Bulletin

Table of Contents

(pdf)

Gendered Violence in Schools

Nan D. Stein, Ed.D. , Wellesley Centers for Women, Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College

On October 26, 2010, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts across the country that provided guidance about critical distinctions between two important issues schools face: bullying and harassment.1 OCR’s October 2010 letter clarified that peer-to peer harassment is not the same as bullying. As this article discusses, they are two very separate terms and concepts that have unfortunately become fused and conflated in the minds and behaviors of many school officials, the public, and the press.2

Working With Schools
There are many strategies for coalitions and community-based organizations to use while working to end violence in schools and communities. These strategies include:
  • Get buy-in from school administration and educators. Frame the topics of sexual harassment, dating violence, and sexual assault as violence prevention and as an integral part of creating a safe school.
  • Use an evidence- and practice-informed approach.
  • Engage students in assessing school climate and making their school a safer place.

(See the author’s article Addressing the Gendered Dimensions of Harassment and Bullying: What domestic and sexual violence advocates need to know for a complete list and description of strategies.)

Bullying vs. Sexual Harassment

The term “bullying” is imprecise and vague; it is used as a default, as a crutch, and has been stretched to describe everything from meanness to sexual and physical assault. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is illegal under federal law Title IX, which was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1972. Unlike discriminatory harassment, anti-bullying laws and policies vary from state to state and do not rise to the level of being violations of federal law. School staff minimize their legal responsibility to targeted students when they call sexual harassment “roughhousing” or “bullying” because such language reduces these behaviors to the level of minor, mutual, and annoying conduct between students. Research has shown that more dire mental health consequences have been noted for the targets of sexual harassment than for the targets of bullying.3 Moreover, the failure of school personnel to address sexual harassment contributes to the creation of an unsafe school environment that perpetuates sex-based discrimination by lending harassment the implicit permission of adults.

Dating Violence and Sexual Harassment in Schools

Dating violence and sexual harassment (including “interpersonal” or “gender” violence) among adolescents represent serious problems for educators in K-12 schools.4,5,6,7 They are pervasive in school settings, with half of all teenagers experiencing sexual harassmentand8 somewhere between 10-20 percent experiencing teen dating violence.9,10,11,12,13,14 Although formal dating is limited among younger adolescents, early gendered conflicts are still measurable.15 Sexual harassment prevalence rates increase throughout middle school, suggesting that schools may be the training grounds for dating violence.16 Indeed, sexual harassment may be a precursor to teen dating violence.17,18 Dating violence and harassment can lead to serious injuries for victims, poorer mental/physical health, more “high-risk”/deviant behavior, and increased school avoidance.19,20

The OCR Dear Colleague letter stated that there is a danger of schools limiting their responses to “a specific application of an anti-bullying disciplinary policy” without considering whether the behaviors in question violate a victimized student’s federal civil rights. Rather, the school’s responsibility is to eliminate the hostile environment created by the harassment, address its effects, and take steps to ensure that harassment does not recur. In other words, the school cannot reduce or minimize egregious conduct by only applying the schools’ or states’ anti-bullying policy if there might be federal civil rights violations occurring. Potential violations of federal civil rights laws take precedence over anti-bullying laws and bullying prevention efforts.

Just as the recent emphasis on violence prevention has challenged advocates to expand their focus to a more broad-based response to sexual and domestic violence, advocates have an opportunity to expand their work in schools to more effectively identify and address sexual harassment and related civil rights violations. The October 2010 Dear Colleague letter presents domestic and sexual violence advocates a rare opportunity to collaborate with school personnel to reinvigorate and strengthen anti-harassment efforts.


  1. Ali, R. (2010). Dear colleague letter: Harassment and bullying. Retrieved from U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights
  2. Stein, N. & Mennemeier K. (2011) Addressing the Gendered Dimensions of Harassment and Bullying: What Domestic and Sexual Violence Advocates Need to Know. Harrisburg, PA: The National Resource Center on Domestic Violence & The National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Retrieved at: VAWnet.org
  3. Gruber, J. E., & Fineran, S. (2007).The impact of bullying and sexual harassment on middle school and high school girls. Violence Against Women, 13, 627-643.
  4. Taylor, B., Stein, N., Burden, F. (2010) Exploring Gender Differences n Dating Violence/ Harassment Prevention Programming in Middle Schools: Results From a Randomized Experiment. Journal of Experimental Criminology 6: 419-445
  5. Taylor, B. Stein, N., Burden, F. (2010) The Effect of Gender Violence/ Harassment Prevention Programming in Middle Schools: A Randomized Experimental Evaluation. Violence and Victims 25[2]: 202-223
  6. Mulford, C., and P.C. Giordano. 2008. Teen Dating Violence: A Closer Look at Adolescent Romantic Relationships. Vol. Issue No. 261. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
  7. Jouriles, E.N., C. Platt, and R. McDonald. 2009. Violence in Adolescent Dating Relationships. The Prevention Researcher 16:3-7.
  8. Hill, C. & Kearl, K. 2011. Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School. Washington DC: American Association of University Women.
  9. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Statistics on “Hit, Slapped, or Physically Hurt On Purpose by Their Boyfriend or Girlfriend” (2009) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/yrbs/overall.htm
  10. Silverman, J.G. & Decker, M. (2006). Literature Review to Identify Measures of Risk and Protective Factors for Bullying Experiences and Sexual Violence Perpetration. Prepared for Division of Violence Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard University.
  11. Silverman J.G., Raj, A., & Clements, K. (2004). Dating Violence and Associated Sexual Risk and Pregnancy Among Adolescent Girls in the United States. Pediatrics, 114(2), 220-225.
  12. Foshee, V. A. 1996. Gender differences in adolescent dating abuse prevalence, types and injuries. Health Education Research (3):275-286.
  13. Hickman, L.J., L.H. Jaycox, and J. Aranoff. 2004. Dating Violence Among Adolescents: Prevalence, Gender Distribution, and Prevention Program Effectiveness. Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 5:123‐142.
  14. Jouriles, E.N., C. Platt, and R. McDonald. 2009. Violence in Adolescent Dating Relationships. The Prevention Researcher 16:3-7.
  15. Noonan, R.K., and D. Charles. 2009. Developing Teen Dating Violence Prevention Strategies: Formative Research with Middle School Youth. Violence against Women 15 (9):1087-1105.
  16. Stein, N. 1995. Sexual Harassment in K-12 Schools: The Public Performance of Gendered Violence. The Harvard Educational Review 65 (2):145-162.
  17. Taylor, B., Stein, N., Woods, D., Mumford, E. 2011. Shifting Boundaries: Final Report on an Experimental Evaluation of a Youth Dating Violence Prevention Program in New York City Middle Schools. U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved at: https://www.ncjrs.gove/pdffiles1/nij/grants/236175.pdf
  18. Carlson, C. 2002. Invisible Victims: Holding the Educational system Liable for Teen Dating Violence at School. Harvard Women’s Law Journal, 26: 372-376.
  19. Gruber, J. E., and S. Fineran. 2008. Comparing the impact of bullying and sexual harassment victimization on the mental and physical health of adolescents. Sex Roles 59 (1-2):1-13.
  20. Howard, D., Wang, M.Q., and Yan, F. (2007) Psychosocial Factors Associated With Reports of Physical Dating Violence Among U.S. Adolescent Females. Adolescence 42[166]:311-24.