When Natalie, 13, swung open the door to her school's administration office and said, "Someone is going to listen to me," everyone turned their heads in shock. She addressed the teachers, "Everyone should know that sexual harassment is going on in our school, and something should be happening to stop it. If you do not know, then this is not being taken care of properly…everything I have reported is not being discussed with the staff, and it should be. Everyone should be aware because it is a real thing that is happening every single day."
This was moments after a boy in Natalie's class kept getting closer to her even after she continued to move away from him. Saying things to make her uncomfortable, he touched her leg. That's when she immediately got up, left the classroom, and went straight to the office.
Natalie, a Rhode Island eighth-grader who says she would rather not print her last name because of the sensitive nature of the story, credits being in Girl Scouts with helping her speak up. The Girl Scouts of the USA have recently taken a proactive stance on the issue, providing parents with information that helps them talk to their daughters from a young age. Among the advice: Reminding them that harassment and sexist behavior is never their fault and there's no need to be nice or polite in the face of damaging behavior.
The incident with the boy touching her leg was the last straw for Natalie. She was overwhelmed and confused with comments that boys at her school regularly made to her and other girls. "There were comments about how I looked in my gym shorts compared to the sweatpants I usually wear. A couple very threatening, vulgar comments that could have warranted filing a report with the police," she tells Refinery29.
Before Natalie finally stormed into the office, she had continuously reported the treatment to her school's administration, without much of a response. She told other kids, and heard things like, "You should take that as a compliment" and "They're just saying you have a nice body."
But it's a "compliment" Natalie was not okay with. It was affecting her work and how she felt around other students. She says some of the girls at school don't like her because they're friends with the students she's filed complaints against — "but I still reached out to them and told them that I know how they are feeling inside."
"I didn’t want to be sick to my stomach all day at school, then come home, slam my door, lay my back against it, and cry for not just myself, but for all the other kids who are being sexually harassed and won’t say anything to anyone," says Natalie, who has received her Silver Award for work with her school's theater department, and plans on working toward her Gold Award in high school.
With more than one in 10 girls catcalled before her 11th birthday, and more than one in six girls in K-12 having faced gender-based harassment, conversations about sexual harassment have inevitably reached schools. But Girl Scouts' Chief Girl & Parent Expert Andrea Bastiani Archibald says parents and administrators can be reluctant to have them, often because they think girls are too young for these topics.
The Girl Scouts don't think so.
"We're raising a community of nearly 2 million girls here at Girl Scouts," Bastiani Archibald tells Refinery29. "We like to pick up on topics that families are talking about." At the heart of the effort, she says, is the website Raising Awesome Girls, which in addition to sexual harassment tackles everything from deployed parents to school dress codes to bullying.
Bastiani Archibald says it's crucial to start talking to girls about boundaries when they're young, even when you're not yet using the term "sexual harassment."
"Around preschool and even younger, we can talk to them about our bodies, that no one has the right to touch them without permission. Teach them about respect, boundaries, being private. When we start these conversations early, our girls pick up that no topic is off-limits," and are then emboldened to speak up if something happens to them, she says. She adds that the media and TV can be useful conversation-starters with children. "You could be watching a TV show and say something like, 'That was kind of a disparaging remark he made about her.'"
Natalie says that conversations she's had with other Girl Scouts have helped give her courage to speak up.
"On one of our camping trips, when we were all quietly talking to each other in our bunks, another girl shared with us that she had been sexually assaulted," Natalie says. "It was because she was in a safe space that she told us. We talked to her about what happened and helped her build up the courage to tell her parents. If she hadn’t come to us in that safe place Girl Scouts gave us, and if we didn’t know how to encourage her because of what we have learned about being a fellow Girl Scout, she wouldn’t have told anyone."
Each time something happened at school, Natalie told her mother, Ashley. When the administration finally came around to listening to Natalie, the two came up with a few ideas for the school to help keep students safe. One of them was mandatory, enforced guidance hours for the kids who were sexually harassing other students.
"If I was going to guidance because of what they were doing to me, they should be in guidance to figure out why they were treating me the way they were," Natalie says.
The administration also decided to bring in the school district psychologist to run a program called Flirting vs. Hurting. As these steps started to be put into action, more girls started speaking up. Next year, when she moves up to the high school, Natalie says she thinks her school will be more prepared to deal with the problem.
Ashley, who herself has dealt with sexual harassment just like scores of other women, says she admires her daughter's strength. Until Natalie came forward with her experiences, the school had no idea how prevalent this problem was, she says. "There was no specific plan for how these situations would be handled. Natalie saw an opportunity there, and at 13 years old, she influenced school administrators to change their policies and procedures."
Catching, and discussing, this type of behavior early helps children understand acceptable boundaries early on. "Not only do we need to ensure a young offender gets to the root of why they have acted inappropriately and, as a result, negatively impacted another human being; we must also make sure they realize that they will be held accountable and should they continue with that type of behavior in the future, there will be severe consequences such as arrest and/or termination from employment," Ashley says.
But it shouldn't just be on girls. As the mother of two boys, Bastiani Archibald says she's painfully aware that there's virtually nothing for them out there on this topic. "I know of no boy-serving organizations that address it, and it's disappointing because it's not a boys' or girls' issue, it's an issue of humanity."
Refinery29 reached out to the Boy Scouts to ask whether the organization has specific programs that address boys' treatment of girls in schools. The Boy Scouts have dealt with some internal abuse cases, and have since then rolled out resources to protect their members.
A representative for Boy Scouts, which has over 2.4 million participants, says all adult volunteers are required to complete youth protection training. According to the most recent Boy Scout handbook, the code of conduct says, "I will not discuss or engage in any form of sexual conduct while engaged in Scouting activities. I will refer Scouts with questions regarding these topics to talk to their parents or spiritual advisor."
“Later this month, we are introducing an updated youth protection training that will cover additional areas of child maltreatment, including neglect, emotional abuse, and exposure to violence, which experts agree are important to address in order to help keep youth safe,” the representative says.
There is, however, nothing to our knowledge on teaching boys about what behavior is unacceptable. When asked specifically about such programs, the rep didn't immediately respond.
Natalie currently attends therapy outside of school that gives her an unbiased outlet to turn to. She says she thinks she might have a career as a principal or school administrator and pursue acting and singing in the summers.
Ashley encourages other parents to have open minds when it comes to speaking with their children. "Trust your child if you want your child to trust you," she says. "Let them feel they have a safe space in you to pour out their worries, a nonjudgmental place they can confide in, to unload a burden they shouldn’t have to carry."
The Girl Scouts facilitated our interview with Ashley and Natalie, who declined to give their last names because of the sensitive nature of this story.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).