The school board and administration at Oak Park’s District 97 elementary school district are working to craft a sexual harassment policy, an effort that community members and parents say is sorely needed.

Dr. Sheela Raja, Oak Park resident and a clinical psychologist, associate professor and behavioral scientist at the University of Illinois Chicago, has written several books on sexual harassment and teens. This fall, she became one of the founders of a local Facebook group called Protect Our Kids: Creating Harassment-Free Schools in Oak Park and River Forest.

For her, the connection between her work, her community and her role as a mother to two daughters was clear. “This topic is very near and dear to my heart.”

About 18 months ago, she was approached by another Oak Park mother who shared her daughter’s chilling story of harassment. The behavior began in elementary school as bullying, escalated to stalking and on-line harassment and culminated in sexual assault when the child was in middle school.

For Raja, hearing the story was an entry into life as a community activist. While recognizing that the story was extreme, she says it is important to give voice to the fact that this happens in our community. She set out to find out just how prevalent harassment is, with a focus on behavior in elementary and middle school.

“I spent my summer interviewing Oak Park teens, many of them now in high school, about their experiences in junior high. I noticed a theme of climate that seemed to be, in my opinion, problematic. I heard stories about repeated, unwanted touching; online harassment that included disseminating sexual pictures; and a hallway and locker room culture that sometimes included repeated name calling and harassment based on gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.”

Overall, Raja says the kids she spoke with had a very unclear sense of who they were supposed to report these issues to. “Kids and the administration need to be trained. I started a dialogue with District 97 right away because I knew there would be people within the administration who would want to champion the issue if they knew the seriousness of the problem.”

This fall, in the wake of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she joined Pam Hessing and created the Facebook group which has grown to over 320 members in a few short weeks. Raja is hopeful that the group can work with the district to craft a sexual harassment policy to improve the climate at the schools.

She points out that Oak Park fits right in with national statistics in which one in four children report some kind of sexual harassment in middle school and notes that interest in the issue has gained traction due to national events, such as the #MeToo movement.

“We’ve gotten a core group of parents energized and activated. We’ll need courage and leadership at school and will need this to carry over into homes as well. We all need to be talking about this.”

Holly Spurlock, president of the District 97 school board serves on the board’s policy committee. Since August, she says, the committee has been tasked with creating the sexual harassment policy. The board is looking to OPRF’s policy and procedures as framework, but she notes that District 97 has unique considerations.

“We’re different because we have such a different age group. The kids are much younger. We need to be age-appropriate in terms of language.”

She also says that the education portion of the policy needs to fit the needs of this age group. “There has to be real care to see that the perpetrators are sometimes victims too. Kids learn from what they see at home.”

Raja says the ages of the children at District 97 certainly need to be considered in crafting the policy and that a restorative justice policy is key. “We want to meet the children where they are. We need to do it in a way that’s not punitive, but that catches things early, before they escalate.”

Another challenge in creating the policy is the breadth of the district. “The high school has one building. We have 10 buildings,” says Spurlock. “Our biggest challenge is not the desire to do something, but how do we come close to what the high school did in providing someone kids know to go to, who knows what they are doing?”

Currently, issues such as inappropriate touching and harassment are commonly covered in the district’s Second Step programming, and Spurlock says the educational piece of the policy will include a review of the current curriculum. “Can we say, ‘yes, this is sufficient.’ Or do we say, ‘No. We need more?'”

Spurlock says engaging with the community is the next step for the committee and that the goal is to get a draft policy to the board in early 2019. “If you want people to have a sense of belonging, the bottom line is that you have to be intentional about this. It doesn’t just happen. You have to be proactive.”

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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