By JANE ROULIER
In schools, on the streets, in relationships, and online, girls in communities across the country are experiencing bullying and harassment. In addition to sexual harassment, many girls experience discrimination based on their race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion, and other factors.
Over the past year, one in four high school girls has been bullied on school property, which negatively affects everyone involved — the victim, the harasser, and the bystanders — as well as the learning environment.
While Massachusetts has laws requiring schools to develop and implement plans to address bullying, Girls Inc. of Holyoke recognizes that bullying is not limited to the school grounds. Indeed, the prevalence of social media means that bullying follows girls into their homes and lives outside of school. Children who are bullied often have little reprieve.
To address this pervasive problem, Girls Inc. recently dedicated Girls Inc. Week 2017, May 8-12, to helping girls advocate for change and make our communities better places to live.
But this is an initiative that goes on year-round — because it must.
Girls Inc. recently surveyed nearly 800 members of our national network, including girls and alumnae, parents, staff, board members, and donors, to determine the top challenges facing girls today. Nearly 70% of respondents identified ‘bullying, harassment, and sexual violence’ as an issue of concern to them. We can’t ignore this. This is a problem that affects us all.
It is important we understand the facts and myths about bullying and harassment in order to effectively address this issue.
Myth: Bullying is just ‘kids being kids,’ and we should stop making it such a big deal.
Fact: Bullying can cause lasting harm. Repeated or severe conduct based on sex or other protected categories is unlawful harassment.
Myth: If it happens off school grounds, it’s not the school’s responsibility.
Fact: Under Title IX, schools have to address conduct they know about, or should know about, that leads to a hostile environment or impedes a student’s ability to benefit from the educational program.
Myth: Bullies are ‘problem kids’ who have aggression issues and should be punished.
Fact: Actually, it is quite common for kids who bully to be victims themselves.
Myth: Bullying will stop only if the victim stands up to the bully.
Fact: Just as society does not expect victims of other types of abuse to “deal with it on their own,” we should not expect this from victims of bullying or harassment.
Girls Inc. encourages girls to be change agents within their communities, boldly advocating for themselves and others. Along with more than 450 other attendees at Girls Inc. of Holyoke’s Spirit of Girls breakfast fund-raiser last month, I witnessed girls doing this. Girls as young as 7 through 17 spoke confidently in front of this large crowd about how the programs at Girls Inc. have impacted their lives by building their self-esteem and encouraging them to make sure their voices are heard. Because of what they are learning, these girls will not be afraid to advocate for themselves or others.
Girls Inc. of Holyoke is also working every day to change policies, attitudes, and beliefs to improve the conditions in which girls are growing up. It takes all of us coming together to ensure that girls feel safe in their schools, in their communities, and with their peers.
Jane Roulier is chair of the board of directors for Girls Inc. of Holyoke.