Learning in a Toxic Environment
by June Larkin
For many female students, harassing incidents are part of the sad reality of their everyday school life. And yet, despite all the talk about equal opportunity in education, there has been little discussion of the ways this behaviour interferes with young women's ability to get an education.
In the name of equal education, girls have been urged into math and science, plugged into leadership courses, and remediated for their alleged deficiencies while, at the same time, incidents of sexual harassment remind them that they are not considered equal at all. More and more, female students are finding themselves in a confusing situation as they grapple with the feelings of frustration, fear, rage, and humiliation that arise from the demeaning behaviour they so often experience in their passage through the "gateway to opportunity": school.
Over the past three years I have spoken to young women from various cultural and economic backgrounds about the sexual harassment they experience in their high schools. I realize, of course, that young women's experiences of sexual harassment are not limited to schools; they are also harassed on the street, in public places and in their part-time jobs. But I chose to focus on schools because they are heralded as places where students come to increase their life opportunities. However, considering that the self-esteem and career aspirations of young women actually decrease throughout their high school years it seems that, for many female students, education is hardly a key to success (1). In fact, the testimonies of these young women suggest that life is often a grim battle against a hostile and threatening school environment. Their words are bleak reminders of the work we have yet to do if equal opportunity is to become more than a rhetorical term.