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Sexual Harassment ‘Common And Often Unchallenged’ In PPS, Says Advocacy Group Calling For Change

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
A Pittsburgh Public Schools hallway.

Members of a group working to address challenges faced by black girls told the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Education that sexual harassment is a pervasive issue within the district.

“You do not need to know the national data to hear girls who tell their experiences here with the unwanted looks, lewd gestures and touching from classmates that make them feel unsafe in the school setting,” said Andrea Joseph, research coordinator at the nonprofit Gwen’s Girls, which provides support for at-risk girls.

Nearly one in three teenage girls has experienced sexual violence according to a 2017 research report from the National Women’s Law Center. That research also suggests that black girls and LGBT people are disproportionately affected.

Joseph is a member of the Black Girls Equity Alliance, a group that was formed by Gwen’s Girls. That group has been meeting regularly speaking with groups of girls about school and what makes them feel safe. Britney Brinkman, an associate professor of counseling and psychology at Chatham University, said many of those girls have spoken about sexual harassment and how pervasive it is in schools.

Members of the alliance delivered a letter to the school board Monday during its monthly public hearing that called the conduct, “common and often unchallenged.”

The letter asked the board to take on the following:

  • Include language within the district’s strategic plan to include a commitment to “effectively prevent and respond to sexual and other forms of harassment”
  • Establish a full-time Title IX coordinator to receive and investigate complaints
  • Establish a task force focused on eradicating sexual harassment to quantify the scope of the problem, assess policies and procedures, and develop district-wide training for all staff

PPS adopted a policy in May 1995 prohibiting sexual harassment. The policy calls for preventative and corrective action, yet advocates said Monday teachers are not equipped to handle incidents of sexual assault and harassment.

District spokesperson Ebony Pugh said the district’s student services and law departments have routinely trained staff groups on sexual harassment and appropriate school response.

“This is typically an annual professional development that is provided to principals, assistant principals, as well as counselors, social workers as a part of the code of conduct updates and annual legal updates that are presented,” she said.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said sexual harassment is one of the many issues the district needs to address.

“If we don’t eradicate it, it means we need more support,” he said.

Hamlet said he was willing to take the policy to the school board to be revisited and revamped based on the latest best practices.

The call for action from the alliance grew from a Southwest PA Says No More campaign.