It can be a malicious rumor whispered in the hallway, a lewd photo arriving by cell phone, hands groping where they shouldn't. Added up, it's an epidemic - student-on-student sexual harassment that is pervasive in America's middle schools and high schools.
The American Association of University Women, a non-profit advocacy group for women's welfare released a major national survey Monday. During the 2010-11 school year, 48 percent of students in grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment in person or electronically via texting, email and social media, according to the new report.
The harassers often thought they were being funny, but the consequences for their targets can be wrenching, according to the survey. Nearly a third of the victims said the harassment made them feel sick to their stomach, affected their study habits or fueled reluctance to go to school at all.
"It's reached a level where it's almost a normal part of the school day," said one of the report's co-authors, AAUW director of research Catherine Hill. "It's somewhat of a vicious cycle. The kids who are harassers often have been harassed themselves."
The survey, conducted in May and June, asked 1,002 girls and 963 boys from public and private schools nationwide whether they had experienced any of various forms of sexual harassment. These included having someone make unwelcome sexual comments about them, being called gay or lesbian in a negative way, being touched in an unwelcome sexual way, being shown sexual pictures they didn't want to see, and being the subject of unwelcome sexual rumors.
The survey quoted one ninth-grade girl as saying she was called a whore "because I have many friends that are boys." A 12th-grade boy said schoolmates circulated an image showing his face attached to an animal having sex.
In all, 56 percent of the girls and 40 percent of the boys said they had experienced at least one incident of sexual harassment during the school year.
After being harassed, half of the targeted students did nothing about it. Of the rest, some talked to parents or friends, but only 9 percent reported the incident to a teacher, guidance counselor or other adult at school, according to the survey.
Reasons for not reporting included doubts it would have any impact, fears of making the situation worse, and concerns about the staff member's reaction.
The report comes at a time when the problem of bullying at schools is in the spotlight, in part because of several recent suicides of beleaguered students.
The AAUW report observes that sexual harassment and bullying can sometimes overlap, such as the taunting of youths who are perceived to be gay or lesbian, but it says there are important distinctions. For example, there are some state laws against bullying, but serious sexual harassment - at a level which interferes with a student's education- is prohibited under the federal gender-equality legislation known as Title IX.
"Too often, the more comfortable term bullying is used to describe sexual harassment, obscuring the role of gender and sex in these incidents," the report says. "Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment."
Fatima Goss Graves, a vice president of the National Women's Law Center in Washington, said the ultimate goal should be to deter hurtful student interactions however they are defined.
"Schools get too caught up in the label," she said. "If it's the sort of conduct that's interfering with a student's performance, it ought to be stopped."
The survey asked students for suggestions on how to reduce sexual harassment at their schools. More than half favored systematic punishments for harassers and said there should be a mechanism for reporting harassment anonymously.
The AAUW report said all schools should create a sexual-harassment policy and make sure it is publicized and enforced. It said schools must ensure that students are educated about what their rights are under Title IX, with special attention paid to encouraging girls to respond assertively to harassment since they are targeted more often than boys.
Niobe Way, a professor of applied psychology at New York University who has studied adolescent relationships, suggested that school anti-harassment policies might have only limited impact without broader cultural changes that break down gender stereotypes.
"You have a culture that doesn't value boys having close intimate relations and being emotional or empathetic," she said.
Bill Bond, a former high school principal who is a school safety expert for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said there had been in shift in the nature of sexual harassment among students over recent decades.
Overt attempts to exploit a fellow student sexually have become less common, while there's more use of sexual remarks to degrade or insult someone, he said.
"Words can cut a kid all the way to the heart," Bond said. "And when it's on the computers and cell phones, there's no escape. It's absolutely devastating and vicious to a kid."
The survey was conducted for AAUW by Knowledge Networks, and students answered the questions online, rather than to a person, to maximize the chances that they would answer sensitive questions candidly. Households were provided with equipment and Internet access if needed.
The AAUW said the margin of error for the full sample of the survey was plus or minus 2.2 percent, with a larger margin of error for subgroups.