Lady Gaga is rightly applauded for her brave efforts to support sexual assault victims. Her performance of 'Till It Happens to You is an integral part of The Hunting Ground film documenting campus assault, and she recently appeared in a New York "TimesTalks" panel alongside the film's creators (director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering), her songwriter Dianne Warren, and NY Times journalist and panel moderator Frank Bruni to discuss the epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses.
In her TimesTalks panel appearance, Lady Gaga spoke about the secretive nature of sexual assault, but without disclosing a much larger secret--the festering epidemic of sexual violence in The Breeding Ground, our K-12 schools. After an hour-long panel on the pandemic of campus sexual violence, uninformed viewers would conclude that sexual assault originates when vulnerable freshmen arrive at college. But how could this be? Do students turn into predatory monsters between the June of high school graduation and September when the assaults begin in the notorious red zone? Surely rampant sexual assault can't be attributed to new-found freedom.
Why did Lady Gaga and panelists overlook the fundamental connection between "The Breeding Ground" and "The Hunting Ground"? The K-12 breeding ground is to the hunting ground as germs are to infection, a connection I've shared several times with the Hunting Ground team. According to all who monitor current research and reports from K-12 victims, "if we do not bring a serious focus to the problem of sexual harassment and assault in elementary and secondary schools, it will be nearly impossible to make real progress at any other level of education," Fatima Goss Graves, Senior Vice President for Program at the National Women's Law Center wrote.
The reasons for ignoring the K-12 breeding ground are complex. Campus sexual assault is a "sexier" topic. Prestigious institutions and high profile athlete perpetrators are appealing subjects. Brave college survivors possess some maturity to come forward while K-12 students are struggling with an emerging sense of self. Families of elementary and secondary school students are in denial, terrified to imagine that their child could be assaulted (or might be in situation that could lead to assault). So parents pretend that sexual assault happens to other kids, not "good kids" like theirs. Students themselves have come to view sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, and sexual violence in their schools as normative, despite the toll it takes on their emotional health and education. So why bother to report?
When the few courageous students report, school districts typically stonewall complaints by blaming and shaming students for "consensual" sexual activity (or resort to other tactics) to avoid liability, bad press, and lawsuits. Never mind that schools are mandated under Title IX, a federal civil rights law, to provide students an education free from sexual harassment, unwelcome touching, sexual violence, and gender based discrimination. Most schools don't even know their responsibilities under Title IX, even though their federal funding depends on enforcing Title IX. School districts' failure to comply is amply documented by the advocacy nonprofit SSAIS.org.
We learned about Title IX the hard way after our teenage daughter was raped and sodomized by a classmate on a public school fieldtrip. For the last three years, we've been in the trenches addressing the aftermath of sexual assault. When the school treated our daughter inequitably, our state level Office of Public Instruction informed us of her Title IX rights, absent the required response from the district's Title IX coordinator; our complaint resulted in a high profile U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights investigation of the district. But this information came far too late--after experiencing the hellish sexual assault secrets that can't be fathomed 'Till It Happens to You, a common refrain among survivor families. Our quest for justice brought us into contact with numerous families who recounted sexual assaults beginning in kindergarten ("The school told us to dress our daughter in spandex pants"). To spare others the nightmare we experienced, we formed the nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS.org) to lead the country in a national movement to educate and empower families.
Lady Gaga and all stakeholders, listen up. Pervasive sexual harassment caused the NY Times designated "Godmother of Title IX," Dr. Bernice Sandler, to write an entire book devoted to the subject in 2005, before campus sexual assault was widely discussed. By 2012, the Center for Disease Control declared sexual violence a serious health concern for adolescents. From the trenches, we routinely hears about groping and sexual intimidation in hallways, oral rapes (in soundproof music practice rooms and unsupervised locations), rapes behind buildings during sports practice, sexual violence on school busses, rapes at school dances followed by social media postings, sexual assaults on overnight school fieldtrips, sexual assaults of boys under the guise of "hazing," self-harm and suicide when sexual harassment and violence destroys students' lives, and teacher on student sexual assaults. And let's not minimize the middle school environment where predatory students hone their skills. Our daughter's rapist had already been disciplined in eighth grade for "lewd behavior," after found having "consensual sex" on school property during recess.
When students' lives and educational opportunities are compromised by sexual harassment and violence, all of us (including the next generation--the survivors' children) experience the consequences. And while we see activists dabbling in the K-12 domain, our society needs a comprehensive, multi-pronged solution to sexual violence in K-12 schools, not ineffectual consent education. The question is whether anyone cares enough to ask what's really required. Lady Gaga, celebrities, filmmakers, lawmakers, stakeholders, and visionaries: I dare you to ask us, I dare you to join us!