Four in 10 middle-schoolers said they were sexually harassed in the last year.

By Hollee Actman Becker
December 13, 2016
sad tween girl
Credit: Oleg Golovnev/Shutterstock

If you've got kids in middle school, you might be surprised by this next bit of news. Because according to a new five-year study led by bullying and youth violence expert Dorothy L. Espelage, 43 percent of middle-school students reported being victims of sexual harassment during the prior year.

That's almost half of the 1,300 kids surveyed—an increase from Espelage's previous research, which found only a quarter of students had experienced such behavior.

Twenty-one percent said they had been touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way. Eighteen percent said a peer had brushed up against them in a suggestive manner, 14 percent had been the target of a sexual rumors, and 9 percent had been victimized with sexually explicit graffiti in school locker rooms or bathrooms.


But what Espelage found most concerning was that most of the middle-schoolers were pretty dismissive of these experiences, even as they described them as very upsetting. "Students failed to recognize the seriousness of these behaviors—in part because teachers and school officials failed to address them," she explained.

In fact, while students reported that most of the incidents occurred in places like school hallways, classrooms, gym locker rooms, or gym classes where staff members might witness them, the researchers found that many teachers and staff members failed to acknowledge that the sexual harassment was even occurrings.

Pretty disheartening. It's clear that prevention efforts need to be more of a priority in our schools—they should have a consistently enforced policy, Espelage said, that clearly defines sexual harassment and establishes regulations against engaging in such behavior—and hopefully studies like this one will help make that a reality. In the meantime, we asked her what a middle-school parent can do to help.

"First, and foremost, parents need to educate themselves about sexual harassment," she told us. Additionally, Espelage suggests parents:

  • listen carefully to their children, and ask specific questions about the language that is used at school
  • pay attention to games kids may be playing (like the nervous game, for example)
  • know their school's policy about sexual harassment
  • be good a role model

Hollee Actman Becker is a freelance writer, blogger, and mom of two who writes about parenting and pop culture. Check out her website for more, and then follow her on Instagram and Twitter.