Right Before My Eyes

harassmentI have always considered myself an activist. If I see something wrong, I usually try to speak up and point it out. I have realized, however, that like many other people in society, I am a passive observer to sexual harassment.

It's hard not to notice sexual harassment. Whether an inappropriate comment in the school corridor or a slap on the behind on the street, sexual harassment seems hard to escape.

In the minds of both males and females, girls dress provocatively to garner a certain reaction. Their skimpy outfits turn guys' heads in the hallways and on the streets, and I have to admit that despite my holier-than-thou demeanor, I sometimes join in the watching. The mentality I observe and sometimes buy into is the idea that when a girl dresses a certain way, she wants to be ogled, touched and spoken to inappropriately. In the back of my mind, I knew this assumption was unfounded, but that did not stop me from sometimes giving into the mob -- until recently.

The notion that sexual harassment is provoked made sense to me. Why else would a girl dress provocatively if she didn't want attention? But a recent class discussion shined light on something I didn't even realize was happening in my own community. Many males my age are giving what they call "love licks" to their girlfriends in the halls between class. Love licks are exactly what they sound like: The guys smack their girlfriends in a "playful" fashion on the behind. It's not so playful, however, and I doubt whether it is out of love. Roughly grabbing someone's forearm, holding her in place and smacking her on her behind, while a hoard of friends stands around cheering you on does not seem like a loving gesture to me.

My mind was blown away when my journalism teacher revealed the presence of such harassment in my school. "I think it's sick," says Mary Block, a teacher at Cedar Grove High School. "I know that I would never let my boyfriend do that to me when I was in high school, nor would I let it happen to any of my girlfriends."

There were various responses from the students in the class. Some people disagreed with her: "It's just fun," said one student, a male, in my class. "I don't see what the big deal is."

The girls were not so forgiving: "Of course it's a big deal," said one girl. "It's stupid and wrong."

As I walked out of that class, I felt different. Knowing that this type of sexual harassment was occurring around me left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't notice it before, but I notice it now. Now that my teacher has pointed it out to me, I see it everywhere, not just at my school. I see guys smacking their girlfriends' behinds at the subway station and on the train.

I wanted to know what other kids at my school thought, particularly the girls. Most of the time, when I observe sexual harassment, the girls just laugh it off. But I wondered what was going through their minds. "My boyfriend doesn't do it to me. I mean, it's a bad thing," says Lequita Thomas, a 17-year-old senior at Cedar Grove High School. "But what is anyone supposed to do about it?"

"It's a problem," says Matthew Mitchell, another 17-year-old senior at Cedar Grove High School. "But it's not going away any time soon, so I just don't say anything."

Well, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there is something that can be done. The victim, who can be a man or a woman, can report the harasser, who can also be a man or a woman, to the police. A common misconception is that sexual harassment must be directed toward a person of the opposite sex, which is untrue.

Another important aspect of sexual harassment is that the advances must be unwelcome. If you are sexually harassed, this does not mean that you cannot report it just because you did not protest. If you were offended and did not welcome the comments or advances, the behavior (slapping, in the case of the "love licks") is still sexual harassment, which is illegal.

DeKalb County addresses sexual harassment at the school level as well. "There is a process," says Sterling Payne, an employee for the DeKalb County Press Office and executive assistant for Superintendent Johnny Brown. "The sexual harassment must first be reported to a teacher or administrator. Then it is investigated. Then, depending on the outcome of the investigation, the person in question is found guilty or not guilty. This information is available online or in the Student Code of Conduct."

According to the DeKalb County Student Code of Conduct, sexual misconduct or inappropriate sexual advances are prohibited. This includes, but is not limited to, indecent exposure, request for sexual favors, and comments about one's sexual orientation -- all of which are forms of sexual harassment. These all have consequences that can include suspension or expulsion.

As I sat back and reflected on what was going on at my school, I stopped to consider if I had seen sexual harassment in other places. When I worked in a fast-food restaurant in my hometown, the female employees got sexually harassed on a daily basis by customers and co-workers alike. I said nothing. At my old high school, males, including teachers, would comment on the length of the girls' uniform skirts in an inappropriate way. It got to the point where some of the girls refused to wear the school-issued skirts and were forced to wear the alternative: men's cut pants.

I also realized that this was happening at other schools, not just mine. "I see girls getting pushed into the bathroom, the boys' bathroom," says Lauren Smith, a 15-year-old freshman at Mays High School in Atlanta. "I haven't received any comments personally, but when I tell people to stop, they just don't listen."

"I wouldn't say [hugging and touching] is harassment because a lot of the girls really don't mind," says Zakiyah Matthews, a 16-year-old sophomore at Heritage High School in Rockdale County. "Guys have joked around with me, and it has bugged me a little. But I can take a joke. If it's not happening to me, it's none of my business."

Is it really a joke? And is it really none of anyone's business -- or is it everyone's business?

Teachers also have their opinions: "Sexual harassment goes on, and yes it's a problem, but sexual harassment has to be unwelcome," says Kenneth Green, a teacher at Cedar Grove High School. "If I said something that offended one of my students and they didn't tell me, I wouldn't know. If they told me, and I kept doing it, that's a problem."

"There is not a problem with sexual harassment in high schools, " says DeKalb County's Payne,

What people like Green and Payne fail to realize is that although sexual harassment has to be unwanted, people should recognize that the things they say and do may be received as harassment. We have to learn to be more careful of what we say and do.

"I sometimes make comments at girls and I don't feel guilty about it," says Matthew from DeKalb County. "I'm just playing, and it's fun."

If people were more introspective and aware of the consequences of their actions, sexual harassment might not be so severe. They would also realize that sexual harassment doesn't just happen to one group of people.

"The underclassmen girls sexually harass the upperclassmen boys all the time. This is an everyday thing," says Tamira Cousett, a 17-year-old senior at Cedar Grove High School.

The one thing I'm taking away from this experience is that apathy and passiveness don't make anything better. By not speaking up, we are actually creating a greater problem -- the illusion that "love licks" and other forms of sexual harassment are acceptable.

Am I starting a crusade to end all forms of sexual harassment? I'm not ready to take on a challenge of that magnitude. However, I will try to speak up when I see it happen. The social acceptability of sexual harassment is reprehensible, yet sadly, because of passive observers, it is all too real.

Kieran Scarlett is a senior at Cedar Grove High in Atlanta, Georgia.

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