Hal Bergman/Getty Images

By the numbers: Sexual violence in high school

Sexual violence at colleges is a well-known problem, but at high schools its widespread and little discussed

There was the notorious Steubenville rape case and then grim events of Maryville. And of course, there was Jada, a 16-year-old girl catapulted to the ugliest kind of Internet fame when parody pictures of her splayed-out, unconscious body became a Twitter meme.

But beyond the wrenching one-off scandal and social media storm, high schools remain in many ways a black box when it comes to the reality of sexual violence.

Unlike at college, there isn't an army of victim-activists coming forward to share their stories and slam their schools with federal complaints. Many high schools are squeamish about discussing sex at all, let alone the ways it can be violently twisted. And while bullying is a buzzy topic at middle and high schools, so much of it – vicious rumor spreading, groping a girl in the halls, calling a kid a homophobic slur – is actually sexual harassment, experts say. And it starts early.

In a given school year, 58 percent of 7th-12th graders experience sexual harassment

The American Association of University Women

Sexual harassment is pervasive at junior high and high school, according to a 2011 survey by the American Association of University Women. Girls were more likely to experience all forms of sexual harassment, except for being called gay pejoratively, which guys and girls endured equally. In the 2010-11 school year, 13 percent of girls reported that they'd been touched in an "unwelcome sexual way" and 4 percent reported that they'd been forced to do something sexual. 

Students said girls who were really developed and pretty girls were the likeliest targets

The American Association of University Women

That same survey asked students who was most at risk of sexual harassment. The results were, in order:

  • Girls who are really developed
  • Girls who are very pretty
  • Boys who aren't very masculine
  • Girls who aren't pretty
  • Girls and boys who are overweight

On the fact that both pretty and non-pretty girls were high-risk targets, the report somberly stated: "Sexual harassment appears to leave girls with few options." Good-looking guys were judged the least at risk.

"[Sexual harassment] is about power and control and they are in a position of power in the school," explained Holly Kearl, a co-author of the study. "Girls usually don't really harass men or boys. Everyone's just harassing the girls."

1 in 20 sexually harassed girls switches schools each year because of it

The American Association of University Women

Conventional wisdom holds that a guy who sexually teases a girl probably just "like likes" her. But only 4 percent of confessed sexual harassers in the AAUW study said they were sexually teasing a girl because they wanted a date. Mostly, they said they didn't think it was a big deal or thought they were being funny. But a lot of students on the other end didn't shrug it off or get a chuckle. Twelve percent of students in the survey at some point stayed home from school and 19 percent had trouble sleeping because of sexual harassment. The negative impacts are significantly more pronounced for girls.

"The impact was really upsetting," Kearl said. "To think about all these students having these problems and the schools not willing to do anything about it."

Middle school bullies are 4.6 times more likely to sexually harass

A longitudinal study of 979 students released last month found that 6th grade boys who bullied other kids were almost five times likelier to engage in sexually harassing behaviors two years later. Using gay slurs had a particularly notable effect, making it one and a half times likelier that a boy would go on to sexually harass.

"The best way to demonstrate that you're not gay is to sexually harass someone," explained the study's author, Dorothy Espelage. "Because you're publicly saying, 'I'm a man.'"

1 in 5 high school girls say they’ve been sexually assaulted at school

In total, 53 percent of high school girls are sexual assaulted by a peer, according to a 2008 study of more than 1,000 students, and 39 percent of sexual assaults took place at school. That's specifically unwanted sexual contact, as opposed to the unwanted sexual comments and rumor spreading, which falls under the umbrella of sexual harassment. The majority of these sexual assaults were on the milder end of the spectrum – unwanted kissing, hugging or sexual touching – but a sizeable minority reported more severe violations.

1 in 8 high school girls says she's been raped

Twelve percent of the high school girls in that same study reported that they'd been raped by a peer. The 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention came close to that result, with 10.5 percent of high school girls and 4.2 percent of high schools boys reporting that they'd been forced to have sex. A nationally representative government survey found that 42.2 percent of female rape victims were first raped before age 18.

18 percent of teens report being sexually abused in their relationships

In a new survey of 667 teenagers who'd been dating in the last year, funded by National Institute of Justice, nearly 20 percent of both boys and girls said they'd been victims of sexual abuse in their relationships. In contrast to earlier studies, this nationwide sample found that girls and boys experienced dating abuse at similar rates. The study didn't dig into the harm caused, and it's possible girls endured worse injuries from the abuse. Bruce Taylor, a principal research scientist with NORC at the University of Chicago and one of the study's lead researchers, told the Associated Press that the survey uncovered "the startlingly widespread nature of the problem."

12 percent of teens admit that they've sexually abused someone they're dating

In that same survey, conducted as a self-administered online questionnaire, one in eight teens said they had sexually abused someone they're dating. The rates of perpetrating dating abuse for boys and girls were again similar. But the researchers told the Associated Press that there was a difference by age, with girls more likely to seriously threaten or be physicaly violent towards their dating partners between the ages of 12 and 14, and boys more likely to become perpetrators as they got older. 

60 percent of high schools boys find it acceptable to force sex on a girl in some circumstances

As part of her AP assignment, Sylvia Nemeth also asked classmates whether, in a rape trial, a woman's clothing at the time of the alleged crime should be considered in the verdict. Of the 57 male responses, 21 believed it should, or were neutral.
Sylvia Nemeth

In 1993, researchers presented 237 Louisiana high school students with 11 scenarios describing forced sex and asked if they considered any of them acceptable. Sixty percent of the boys responded affirmatively to at least one. Last year, when Sylvia Nemeth was a senior at Garfield High School in Seattle, she decided to probe that same question for an AP statistics assignment with her own set of scenarios. Of the 120 students she surveyed, 11 percent said it was ok for "Ryan" to force "Taylor" to have sex if they're in love.

"It was just really upsetting to read through them," said Nemeth, who's now at Smith College. "It made me really angry at the school system. How many people must not be coming forward, because they feel this culture of ignorance and rape apology?" 

Only half of high school rape victims told anyone about it

In that same 1993 study of Louisiana high schoolers, 20 percent of students said they'd been forced into sex, and only half of them said they'd told anybody about it. A far smaller fraction ever reports it to authorities. A 1983 survey of 172 female sexual assault victims, ages 11 to 17, put that percentage at 6 percent – similar to the reporting rate among college rape victims.

U.S. public schools recorded 4,200 sexual assaults

That's in the 2009-10 school year, according to the annual school crime report from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. Those 4,200 sexual assaults included 600 rapes or attempted rapes and 3,600 other types of sexual assault. The study also tallied how many of those incidents the schools reported to police. One hundred of the rapes or attempted rapes and 49 percent of the other sexual assaults weren't reported to law enforcement. 

23 school districts face Title IX sexual violence investigations

Under Title IX, all schools that receive federal funding have to handle sexual assault reports in specific ways, such as conducting a prompt investigation, protecting an alleged victim from retaliation and ensuring her safety. At the college level, there have been a slew of Title IX complaints from students who say their rights were violated, and the Department of Education is currently investigating 86 colleges. At the K-12 level, which hasn't received the same explosion of awareness, just 23 districts are facing federal inquiry for mishandling sexual violence reports.

More stories from America Tonight

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter