Students sexually harassing teachers
Sarah* was in her first year of teaching, working at a Catholic boys’ school in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, when she confiscated something belonging to one of her Year 8 students. She told the boy he would be able to retrieve it the next day but, as she was packing her things to go home, he returned to her classroom with some of his friends. Sarah recalls how they surrounded her and began yelling at her to return his item.
“I ended up with my back against the wall, with them forming a sort of semicircle around me,” she told me. Things continued to escalate until the instigator levelled an outright threat. “He said that if I did not give him his [item] back now, that he would go straight home, get his dad’s gun, then he would return to school and wait for me to go to my car,” she recalled. “He said that he would then shoot me and then rape my dead body.”
Sarah managed to push through the group and ran, the boys chasing after her. She made it to the staffroom, where some fellow teachers saw her distress and took her to the principal’s office to report the students. She recalls his response as dismissive and unconcerned. “Oh well,” the principal told her. “Just stay away from them.”
Sarah was then 23 years old. Now in her early 40s, she is still scarred by this incident. She recently found herself crying as she told her family about it.
In the two decades since, there has been little change for teachers in Australian classrooms – they continue to battle similar forms of abuse, sexism and physical threats at work as a matter of course. And while the Me Too movement has affected a variety of industries, the education system is yet to have its own moment of reckoning.
According to both teachers and researchers, school administrations – still governed by a “boys will be boys” attitude to adolescence – are shielding students from being held accountable for their abusive behaviour.
A recent survey of almost 2000 members of the Australian Education Union (AEU) found just over 50 per cent of respondents had “experienced, witnessed or supervised someone subject to sexual harassment” while working in the education sector.
Women accounted for 80 per cent of those sexually harassed during their education careers. In 90 per cent of cases, the perpetrator was male. Those most likely to be targeted in schools were women aged 25-29 years old. Within this demographic, almost half of those reporting had experienced sexual harassment in their current workplaces.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the survey findings, though, was the hesitancy most respondents felt in reporting harassment to school administrations. Two-thirds of education providers reported feeling worried they would be unsupported and potentially exacerbate the situation, or even risk unemployment. These are legitimate fears, particularly in an increasingly casualised teaching profession.
As the AEU wrote in its submission to the Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces: “casual or temporary workers who did report [claimed] impacts to their employment conditions included reduced hours or non-renewal of temporary contracts.”
The impacts this kind of homosocial bonding has had on teachers in Australia has long been of concern to me and my work, particularly the question of how this toxicity affects those working in a predominantly feminised industry. When I recently invited education sector workers to share their stories of abuse and harassment with me, the response was staggering. More than 40,000 words of testimony flooded in from dozens of teachers – all bar two of them women. Most experienced their first instances of sexual harassment as tertiary students on work placement.
While the stories ranged in severity, they all shared a common theme – sexualised intimidation followed by few, if any, consequences for the perpetrator. “I’ve come from the criminal justice system,” Hannah* told me, “and have never been as disrespected as I have been in the education system.”
Leitmotifs appeared in the testimonies that teachers offered – being surrounded by young male students, sometimes in the classroom and sometimes while performing yard duty. Some teachers recalled being bombarded with sexual taunts and misogynistic language. Others experienced even more serious assaults in these situations, telling me there were times they had been groped by unseen hands in crowded school hallways or in the schoolyard at lunchtimes.
Liz* recounted being surrounded by about 15 boys after she asked them to stop encroaching on a group of girls playing soccer. “It felt like being trapped by a pack of wolves,” she told me. “They used their height and numbers to act threateningly. When I reported this to the heads of house and principal, absolutely nothing was done.” Another teacher, Claire*, recalled the time she was trapped in a large group of senior schoolboys and “touched all over”. When she reported the incident to the principal, he blamed the assault on her choice of clothing and the relationships she had built with the students.
In one case, a teacher came forward after being groped many times by the same student only to discover another woman had also reported the same behaviour by the student to the year level co-ordinator, who had told her to “deal with the issue on her own”. It was only when three teachers made the same complaint that the co-ordinator took it to the school’s administrative body, at which point more women came forward. In total, the same student had sexually assaulted seven teachers at school.
Teachers also reported the use of technology as a weapon against them, with many young women telling me they had discovered students had been secretly photographing them in class and – in a number of cases – even perpetrating the illegal practice of “up-skirting”. These photographs were later uploaded to social media, with the women sometimes not finding out until months later, even as the images circulated among hundreds of students.
Rachel* told me that during her teaching rounds, she was instructed by fellow teachers to never let students take a photo of her because “the year before, they’d found students had made a website with a series of photoshopped porn images with teachers’ faces on naked bodies”. The boys responsible were temporarily suspended but no further action was taken. “Every private boys’ school has similar stories,” Rachel says.
When Maria* began working at a co-ed school, she found herself regularly intimidated and even inappropriately touched by her male students. However, she was afraid to say anything for fear it might give the impression she couldn’t handle her job. In an email to me, she highlighted the terrible bind a lot of women are in when they experience this kind of harassment in the schoolyard.
“All my ‘training’ for this stuff was wrong,” she said. “As a near 40-year-old, I know how to wheedle and flatter and blag myself out of a date that suddenly turns nasty. But these strong, insistent boy-men were beyond me. I felt like a massive idiot. And I could feel them enjoying it, as a group of course, the whole point of the exercise.”
One of the key issues underpinning this kind of abuse appears to be the distribution of power in education bodies. Although the teaching force is overwhelmingly staffed by women, most senior positions are filled by men. Women – particularly young women – are battling the same discrimination in the schoolyard that they face in the wider world, with the added onus often put on them to “prevent” boys from acting out. That they so often can’t is especially troubling, given they are in the position of authority.
Many female teachers who reported sexual harassment to their respective employers were told they needed to dress differently to temper male hormones and, in some cases, to even consider this attention a compliment. Others were told the behaviour wasn’t a problem, rather it was just the student’s personality – more than one respondent who reported abusive behaviour was dismissed with the excuse, “He doesn’t respect female teachers.”
Even when administrative bodies did take teachers’ complaints seriously, it wasn’t always guaranteed the parents would agree. A male teacher once told me that a Year 10 student in the Catholic school in which he taught had, with the support of his parents, refused to apologise to a young teacher against whom he had made a rape threat. His parents had argued, “Boys will be boys, and there are bigger things to worry about.” In private schools in particular, paying high fees appears to give parents great sway over disciplinary actions.
School environments are made more complex because of the entitlement all children have to an education, and the willingness people have to dismiss the aggressive, misogynistic and entitled behaviour of some young men as merely a fact of their adolescence. As a result of a more widespread refusal to intervene in these cultural attitudes, thousands of women employed to educate the next generation are instead enduring hostile workplaces and battling sexual harassment on an often-daily basis and, increasingly, they are making the choice to leave the profession altogether.
Claire, whose principal dismissed her report of assault, chose to leave teaching in 2017. “I hope this helps you to understand one experience,” she told me. “I know I am not alone and that is a scary feeling.”
* Names have been changed to protect identities.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Class struggles". Subscribe here.