Montana Voices: Bring K-12 education into the fight against sexual harassment

I want you to imagine a pine tree. You know the ones where the wind blows mostly in one direction for much of the year. Those trees that don’t grow normally.

Beth Hoover

All of the branches on the pine tree start to bend to the wind. The trees grow with the wind instead of against it. When they’re fully grown, they always look like they’re about to tip over because all of their branches are growing to one side.

This is our culture with sexual harassment.

The wind blows one way — little boys are taught by peers, by parents, by movies, by music, by social media, that the way to treat women is as objects. That women appreciate it. That women want that. It’s hard to fight the wind, so the boys let their morals grow the way of least resistance. But, it’s not just boys who do — it’s girls, too. Because they also feel the wind.

We end up with lopsided children who turn into lopsided young adults, and finally lopsided adults. Sexual harassment doesn’t begin in the workplace. Children don’t spend 12-plus years of schooling in a vacuum, exit public school, begin a job, and then suddenly start treating women with disrespect. They learn sooner and they act on it much sooner. And they get away with it much sooner.

There has been a mass media rebuttal to Harvey Weinstein, just as there was to President Trump, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and pretty much every other famous guy who has allegedly sexually harassed women. The response always seems to be the same: what can other people do to stop or stand up to the harassment in the workplace right now? But, that question is likely too little, too late.

The question we should be asking is what can our K-12 system be doing to create better citizens who don’t allow sexual harassment to happen in the workplace?

The answer isn’t in academics — it’s in social-emotional learning programs. We need programs that teach our students healthy relationship skills. We need programs that teach our students at young ages what it means to create a culture where bad behavior is unacceptable, and bystanders stand up in defense of their peers.

We need them at every level, beginning in kindergarten and following our students through college. We collectively need to fight the wind and stop expecting lopsided adults to suddenly be able to fight the wind on their own.

I work for a program that teaches healthy relationship skills to middle school students, so you might think I’m biased. You might be right. But, sometimes those of us in the thick of the battle are the ones who see it best. We need to stop sexual harassment before it reaches the workplace. Let’s start growing trees with branches that know how to grow against the wind.

Beth Hoover is the violence-prevention educator and communications manager at Power Up, Speak Out! in Red Lodge.