Students, teachers study and address sexual harassment

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Recent increases in incidents of sexual harassment and bullying throughout the School District of Philadelphia motivated teachers, School District administrators, and staff of Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR) to develop a classroom-based approach to addressing these issues.

In 2000, eight teachers from six schools within the District formed a network called Students Against Sexual Harassment (SASH), which aimed to integrate gender issues into traditional subject areas and develop service learning projects that addressed issues of sexual violence in schools.

This preventive method of addressing negative student behavior was designed to educate students about gender dynamics that underlie incidents of sexual violence, and to enable them to take leadership in preventing abuse in their schools by becoming peer educators or advocates.

SASH was created with assistance from the State Department of Education and the School District’s Office of Curriculum Support.

Here are excerpts from Katie McGinn’s description of her experiences teaching eleventh grade students at Gratz High School as a participant in SASH.

As part of a unit on gender and sexual harassment, I used The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical account of his experiences in the Vietnam War, as a primary text with my eleventh-grade students.

While a male-dominated book about war does not immediately seem to lend itself to discussions of gender, I realized that, to a great extent, war divides society along gender lines in ways that are easy to see. For example, why were only men drafted? What were relationships like between soldiers in Vietnam and their girlfriends or wives back in America? When a woman wanted to fight in the war, how did male soldiers regard her? Thus, the text provided an opportunity for students to analyze assumptions about gender while answering questions about the Vietnam War.

While students were reading The Things They Carried, they also worked on a service learning project about sexual harassment that developed from our work with Stacie Brown from Women Organized Against Rape (WOAR). Brown visited our classroom weekly and presented information about rape, date-rape drugs, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. After several visits, students chose to research the School District’s official policy on sexual harassment, as well as work on increasing student awareness of sexual harassment at Gratz.

Students designed and distributed a survey to all the advisories in our small learning community with questions about how sexual harassment affects Gratz students. They analyzed the results and were interested to find that the vast majority of females said they felt angry, disappointed, and/or afraid about sexual harassment. In contrast, about half the male students said they did not care about sexual harassment.

The class decided that students at Gratz needed to know more about sexual harassment and the school’s policy. Students examined the School District’s student code of conduct. They highlighted any parts of the code that were related to harassment, and then, with Brown’s help, put the legal language of the code into words high school students could understand. The reworded code was distributed to all advisories in our small learning community.

Finally, students worked to increase awareness of sexual harassment at Gratz. They constructed collages using pictures from fashion magazines to describe the ways in which sexual harassment might be encountered and dealt with at school. The posters were displayed in school hallways.

Through a curriculum that combined two things many people would not see as connected – a book about the Vietnam War and training about sexual violence – I learned that when students discuss how gender is constructed in texts, they consider how gender is constructed in their own lives and are eager to take steps to improve things.

For more information about SASH, contact Fran Sugarman at 215-991-6959 or