Can I touch you? A mother's reflection on sexual harassment

When a mother realizes the most troubling response to her daughter's sexual harassment is her own.

It was a typical Friday afternoon. My twelve year-old daughter came home from school, dropped her backpack on the floor and took her seat at the kitchen table. "Mom," she said. "There is something I need to tell you."

These are never words a mother wants to hear. They are inevitably followed by admission of guilt of any number of (usually small) offenses; going over the limit of screen/cell phone time; reading my email/texts; reading her father's email/texts; talking about a friend behind her back; ditching swim practice. I did not expect that that the offense would be someone else's.

"Remember how John was asking if he could touch my back and my hair?"

John is the socially awkward brother of one of my daughter's best friends. I remembered she told me that he'd been talking to her more than normal, and asking if he could touch her hair and back. At the time, I asked if it bothered her. She said, No, he's just weird. I responded, Well, he's probably trying to be friendly. As I said, John has always been socially awkward. I didn't think much more about this exchange. In fact, I didn't think about it at all until that afternoon.

"Well, I think he said something really inappropriate to me today."

She told me that he asked if he could touch her nipple in French class that afternoon. She went on to describe how another boy sitting at the table told John that he was disgusting, and that he could not say things like that. A girl sitting with them told John to say he was sorry. John moved to another table but did not apologize. Apparently, he was behaving in this manner with other girls so after class as well, and my daughter's friends encouraged her to tell the teacher, which she eventually did with their support.

"I was too embarrassed to tell the teacher by myself, so Sarah, Anne and Rachel came with me. We felt like he shouldn't keep doing that."

The teacher then assured my daughter that John would be severely punished. John was sent to the principal's office and my daughter was sent to the school guidance counselor, whereupon she was asked to relay what had happened, again, and told, again, that John would be punished. She was then called to the principal's office and asked to "Put down in writing what happened so that John's parents could be notified and John could, (again!) be punished."

My daughter did not put anything in writing. She had the good sense, and the presence of mind, to tell the principal that she did not feel comfortable doing that, and that the school should call me. (They never did.)

The following day my daughter told me that John had been made to sit in the corner of the classroom. This was over two weeks ago and he's still in that same spot, though he still has not apologized.

The adults in this situation failed on multiple levels. As a Rebecca Solnit, Roxanne Gay-reading, Two Dope Queens-listening feminist, it is shocking that I failed to recognize John's initial requests to touch my daughter's hair and back as the harassment they were. My familiarity with this boy, his sister and his family allowed me to excuse his behavior, or, more precisely, not to see it. In terms of the school, when confronted with a situation involving sexual harassment of my child, they should have notified me immediately. Beyond that, repeatedly telling my 12 year-old daughter that this boy would be "severely punished" only served to make her feel guilty about speaking up. In addition, asking her to put in writing what had happened, "so his parents could be notified," put an unfair burden on her for his behavior. Instead, they should have called both sets of parents in and come up with a plan for helping John to understand how his behavior was affecting others. Lastly, no one asked my daughter how she felt, which is perhaps the worst aspect of this whole episode since she was the victim.

According to the Associated Press, there were 17,000 sexual assaults in schools from 2011 to 2015, thought that number is probably higher because of misreporting or underreporting. Given the avalanche of sexual harassment allegations that have come out as a result of the #metoo movement, how we deal with sexual harassment in schools needs to be taken very seriously by parents and school administrators. According to the National Education Association, "Beliefs and attitudes about healthy relationships and sexuality take root early on in a student's life and schools must take the initiative to eliminate sexual harassment and assault, educators say, first by acknowledging that these problems exist and then by tackling the problem in curriculum, policy, and the very fabric of school culture and community."

Though the adults missed the mark in how we dealt with my daughter's situation, the kids did not. They saw inappropriate behavior and called it out. They immediately, and without equivocation, told the perpetrator to stop and to apologize, and they notified the appropriate people in charge of the incident. Maybe this next generation has a thing or two to teach us about handling harassment. For myself, the next time my daughter tells me about something she's going through, I'll be listening.

*Note - names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals in this article.