Research shows that schools are often unsafe places for girls, LGBTQ youth, youth from non-English speaking backgrounds, disabled youth and others who have experienced marginalisation in society.
However, according to Jen Gilbert, associate professor of Education at York University in Canada, the wish for a magic bullet solution masks the complexity of these issues, both for youth and adults.
“Our response to reports of sexual violence in schools, as educators and education researchers, is to search for answers in programs, policies and curriculum,” Gilbert wrote in The Conversation.
“We hope such action could educate young people out of hatred and ignorance and into tolerance and knowledge.”
Gilbert said efforts to support students and transform schools will require “a patient and holistic approach”.
“To make schools more welcoming places for all students, I suggest three responses to the question of what education can do to prevent sexual violence,” she said.
New stories of masculinity
Gilbert said high schools are “laboratories for masculinity and femininity”.
“We know that the scripts describing what it means to become a man and what it means to become a woman are especially rigid during adolescence,” Gilbert said.
“Boys have been taught to hold each other to an impossible standard of masculinity that is tied to race, class and ability. Girls, too, feel enormous pressure to take on traditional ideas of femininity as they learn to navigate an increasingly fraught culture of heterosexuality.”
For young people who feel constrained by “claustrophobic ideas” of masculinity and femininity, Gilbert said schools can play an important role in offering young people “alternative narratives of becoming men and women”.
Stop teaching, start listening
Gilbert said educators and researchers should not only pose the question ‘what can we do’ but ‘what can we learn’.
“Researchers routinely advocate for incorporating young people’s perspectives in school policy and design,” she said.
However, Gilbert said that commitment can be easily shed when schools are faced with incidents of sexual violence.
“The time it would take to listen to young people is often trumped by the demand to respond immediately. The patient work of understanding takes too long,” she said.
“But, as my research on sex education and LGBTQ youth indicates, young people’s experiences of sexuality and gender in high school are far more complex than anti-bullying programs or sex education curriculum can allow.”
Gilbert said that even as young people strive to understand themselves as sexual and gendered beings, they also redefine the terrain and terms of sexuality and gender.
“If we pause and listen to youth, we may hear new stories of masculinity and femininity echoing through the school hallways,” she said.
This article, which originally appeared in The Conversation, has been edited for length