Despite being a prominent issue in our community, sexual harassment is not often definitively recognized or acknowledged at AISB. However, other issues such as mental health, bullying, cyberbullying, digital footprint and so on are touched upon frequently throughout the school year.
According to the UN’s definition, and present in the AISB Safeguarding Handbook, sexual harassment is defined as the following: “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” It can occur in a variety of different circumstances:
- Sexual assault.
- Verbal abuse with a sexual undertone, such as comments about sexual behavior or sexual orientation.
- Unwanted physical contact or touching.
- Inappropriate sexual approaches.
- Bringing up sexual topics during conversations at school or in other unsuitable settings.
- Feeling under pressure to engage in sexual activity.
- Unwanted texts, emails, or images with explicit sexual content.
It is, unfortunately, common for sexual harassment to be present in workplaces, universities, and other schools in varying areas and ages.
Sexual Harassment at AISB
At AISB, sexual harassment does happen despite the policies put in place. Even though many are unaware of them, Jillian Nichols, the Student Support Services (Safeguarding) Coordinator, and the counseling team take action in those situations.
“As counselors, our role is providing support and care for the students involved, victims and offenders. It is members of the administration who investigate and decide appropriate outcomes.”Sommer Blohm, Secondary Counseling Learning Leader states
When a case is reported, the information of both the victim and the offender is taken into consideration by Nichols and the counselors. The way the case is approached depends on the severity of the situation.
If a report is made, the policy of the counselors is to “go through a report of concern” and “through the child protection procedure.” As counselors, their job in the school is to take care of the emotional and mental well-being of both the victim and the offender. “Frequently, when someone is assaulted, that is a very traumatic experience. In that experience, their sense of control has been taken away from them,” adds Blohm. “Firstly, we want to make sure that the victim feels as though they have a sense of control over how we proceed with what’s going to help them feel safe in school,” says Blohm.
Some changes that can be made include a change of classrooms and setting clear boundaries.
“People who feel physically or psychologically unsafe will not learn as well, so we must make sure that we’re providing a safe environment”– Nichols
Moreover, depending on the severity of the incident, students are put on a Confidential Behavioural Agreement. The target is “To have appropriate peer interactions with both male and female students and staff, as defined by refraining from making inappropriate comments about their bodies or intimate behaviors which can make them feel uncomfortable and/or unsafe.” Currently, there are a few students in secondary school that have signed this agreement as a result of past incidents.
With incidents like this outcomes can differ; that is why it is important for counselors to state that they highly value confidentiality even amongst counselors. “Even if something is reported to one [counselor], that doesn’t mean all counselors will be alerted. It all depends on the scale of the issue and we have to take into consideration everybody who it affects.” Only the people involved will know the information to ensure that confidentiality is maintained.
The AISB Secondary School and Safeguarding Handbooks
A survey conducted by Nichols and the staff revealed that the year of the global pandemic saw a tremendous surge in “total safeguarding incidents.” There were increased reports of emotional and physical abuse at home which have now decreased, however, there are now more reports of self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
Safeguarding incidents can be categorized into different sections, not just sexual harassment. Sexual harassment makes up only 7.7% of the total reported safeguarding incidents that take place in the school. However, it is important to not make assumptions about the data even though there has been an increase in reported incidents.
Moreover, this doesn’t mean that these incidents are happening more frequently than they have been in the past. The chart above corresponds to the cases that have been reported, and for the safeguarding leaders and counselors, it is positive to see that more students are feeling comfortable to come forward and seek help.
Types of Safeguarding Incidents (2021-22)
“1 in 4 to 5 women are sexually assaulted but about 80% go unreported,” adds Blohm, “Hence, the real importance of educating and creating systems and policies is to ensure that victims feel supported if/when they do report.”
Despite the fact that students in AISB are educated about sexual harassment from a young age, and there are policies and handbooks in place, these incidents still happen.
“Policies are important because they protect – you have to abide by them and they are like the rules or blueprint of organizations” – (Nichols). In AISB, there are specific policies for various needs and situations. There is one dedicated to safeguarding, as well as an overall Secondary Handbook.
When looking at the data, it can be affirmed that since COVID, cases reported have been significantly higher, “During COVID, it was hard to have those conversations around these more sensitive topics on Zoom. (Students would be) putting things out there, but we didn’t have access to (them), making it vulnerable to have some of those conversations,” says Blohm. That sense of vulnerability could be because of the missing person-to-person contact; the counselor isn’t there for support or comfort. Another reason could be the environment that the student is in – it may be uncomfortable and/or unsafe.
Essentially, these policies and agreements are in place in order to prevent students from facing uncomfortable or inappropriate situations in the AISB community in addition to educating students from a young age about different situations and what is appropriate and what is not.
After discussing the importance of the sexual harassment policy, the counselors agreed that there could be more implementation at AISB in regard to a cohesive curriculum that spreads awareness and educates about these safeguarding issues.
Blohm recognizes that “more preventative education in the curriculum that has to do with what sexual harassment is and what consent is” is necessary and advantageous for everyone in our school community.
“It is important that everybody knows what [sexual harassment] is, how to report it and the outcomes for these sorts of behaviors. I think the school has work to do in making the policies and procedures more clear, in-depth, and have an [greater] impact on how we treat each other in our community.” – Blohm
When talking over it with Nichols, she mentioned that perhaps it would be beneficial to have more student voices and have students take initiative and present during advisory each year as a quick “update” (similar to what the FILIA service group has done in previous years).
While we can continue to spread awareness it is also important to note that the child protection curriculum used at AISB called Keeping Safe starts at age 3, when students are taught how to recognize if they’re in an unsafe situation. This curriculum continues over the years to best educate students on how to stay as safe as possible in any given situation. Nonetheless, the curriculum has been described as repetitive, therefore having a student-led presentation could encourage more engagement and act as a more befitting yearly reminder for students.
It is important to always report to a trusted adult or person if you have experienced or seen any incident or harm. If you see, experience, or know about an incident of harassment of any kind, you can confidentially report it to the counselors, the safeguarding team, or any trusted adult.