The case for teaching kids about #MeToo in elementary school

“Kids want to do the right thing.”
“Kids want to do the right thing.”
Image: Reuters/Samrang Pring
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At an elementary school in the Jamaican Plains area of Boston in 2016, a student was caught distributing a photo of another boy using the bathroom on Snapchat. Other students at the school often make derogatory comments about one another, using words such as “man-slut” and “man-whore,” says Angela Sahtili, a grade-five English teacher.

As the country grapples with the mounting allegations of sexual harassment of public figures, most people have overlooked the experiences of children who haven’t even reached puberty. But as Rachel Simmons recently wrote for the Huffington Post:

Sexual harassment is an epidemic in US middle and high schools.  In a 2014 study of 1,300 middle school students, University of Florida Professor Dorothy Espelage and colleagues found that one-quarter had experienced verbal and physical sexual harassment. Another survey by Espelage’s team found that 68 percent of high school girls were sexually harassed at least once, compared to 55 percent of boys.

A growing contingent of psychologists and educators argue that by the age of 10 or so, children understand that sexual harassment is an effective method to wield power and embarrass and dominate others, and begin to use it on the playground and in the classroom. “Kids in grade three and four already know gender roles and what toxic masculine behaviour looks like,” says Alina Raza, a developmental psychologist who has worked in Oakland, California and Ottawa, Canada.

And so some are advocating for school curriculums that directly address sexual harassment, tailored appropriately for specific age groups. Experts say that kids on the cusp of puberty already have a working knowledge of sex, sometimes from their home environments, but more often from media and peers. They argue that psychological education about sexual harassment and sexual violence early in elementary schools would be a smart way to get students to engage in discussions about consent, choices with their bodies, and mutual respect.

“It’s beyond being proactive, but to be preventative,” says Carolyn Laing, a counseling psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “To do that we have to meet them at the right developmental stage. By the age of six, moral development has already begun to occur.”

Currently, the US curriculum for health education includes bullying, reproduction, and general health, but no upfront syllabus for sexual violence. One potential model is the Safer Choices program, developed over 20 years ago by grassroots organizer Mike Domitrz after his sister became a rape survivor. He’s created workshops tailored to help students anywhere from kindergarten to university age understand the concepts of respect, consent, healthy relationships, and how to be supportive to survivors.

Domitrz has traveled throughout North America delivering his interactive program.  He often uses role-playing scenarios that students might encounter in their daily lives, such as asking to sit beside someone they have feelings for, or initiating a conversation about consent for a kiss. “The school’s own culture also plays a role,” he says. “Some schools want more advanced situations; such as consent to kiss, while others do not want those situations until grade 11.”

“Kids who are dating in grade six come up to me after and say ‘Thank you, I need to slow down,’” adds Domitrz. “Kids want to do the right thing. If we don’t provide the skills, how can we blame them for guessing?”

Because kids mirror whatever they see in their environment, it’s easy for them to absorb gendered expectations about behaviour, which sets them up for miscommunications and problems that continue into adulthood. “Even in middle schools, there is an expectation that boys shouldn’t express the extent of their emotional vocabulary,” says Laing.

Boys in grade five and six have difficulty identifying emotions and feelings, whereas girls are able to talk about their feelings, she finds. “Masculinity (is) defined in this culture (as): be strong and don’t have or show emotions,” she says. This leads to a classroom culture in which boys are not expected to consider the feelings and needs of others.

That’s why another crucial component of an anti-sexual-harassment curriculum needs to involve teaching empathy. If students of all genders learn to care about and imagine someone else’s feelings, it can curtail sexual misconduct like flashing genitals or touching a student in a way that makes them uncomfortable.

Many parents are already on board with the idea of programs that teach children about respect and intimacy. One woman, who I’ll call Mandy to protect her privacy, is a parent of two middle school children who lives 30 miles outside of Atlanta, Georgia. She describes incidences of her son being groped by a student, and also being choked by a different student in the same grade. She raised the problem with the school, but it did not result in them taking any action.

“It is important to teach kids what is acceptable and to have clear boundaries,” she says. For her and other parents, sexual harassment is another form of bullying that needs to be addressed nationally in a school curriculum.

There are objections to bringing #MeToo to elementary schools. Some parents may take issue with their children being exposed to conversations they deem sexual, which can discourage school administrators from implementing the curriculum widely. And other parents worry that that school-based programs might not be effective. The D.A.R.E program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), for example, has been shown not to be effective in deterring drug use in teens.

But Raza says this is a false comparison. “D.A.R.E. introduced kids to a subject that they were not yet exposed to and made it seem fascinating in a lot of ways,” she says. She also argues that the program had clear flaws – it often presented exaggerated information about drugs in a way that was scary, but enticing. A well-designed curriculum addressing sexual harassment would not glamorize the very behaviour it’s trying to discourage. Instead, it would focus on teaching students appropriate interactions and how to protect each other.

Educators and psychologists believe there has to be collaboration between parents and educators for a curriculum to be successful. Parent-teacher meetings are the perfect time to discuss new initiatives, says Raza. They can then discuss the curriculums with their children at home, which will help reinforce the teachings.

“Parents need to get their heads out of the sand. What we are seeing in education is the debate we are seeing in the culture,” says Stanley Spottswood, a 30-year veteran educator in the suburbs of Maryland.

Kids learn in middle school chemistry that before any reaction can occur, there needs to be a catalyst. Educators and parents are hoping that the national conversation about sexual harassment will be the catalyst for the inclusion of anti-sexual violence education for elementary school children – long before they enter the minefield of colleges and workplaces.