What your kids may be afraid to tell you -- but is happening a lot at school
News 6 investigates sexual harassment, offenses reported to state officials
CENTRAL FLORIDA – People sharing their stories of sexual harassment and abuse is sweeping the social media world by storm.
The online outpouring is in response to the #MeToo campaign that started after the firing of several high power professionals.
But what is being done about sexual harassment and abuse when it is happening to our children in our schools? Are people speaking up? Or staying silent?
We found some middle school students, high school students, and parents who spoke candidly about what it’s really like in school these days.
The bottom line: A lot of the harassment they are facing is happening both inside and outside the classroom.
News 6 is not reporting the last names of the students to keep their privacy.
“There's a lot of people in the school that do it,” said Nathan, a sixth-grader who attends College Park Middle School in Orlando. “In the bathrooms, there are a lot of people who will touch other people. Or sometimes like in the locker room, some people will touch other people in certain places. To me, I just think that it’s not my business so I won’t tell anybody.”
“They start small,” said mother Tracy Sims, who has an eighth-grade daughter attending College Park Middle School. “They are starting in like fifth grade.”
“Seeing things online, seeing things on TV,” said father Brian Richman, who has a fifth-grader at Red Bug Lake Elementary School. “It’s one of those things you do worry about - whether you have a boy or a girl. You’ve got to sit them down at a young age and try to teach them right from wrong.”
A couple of other middle school students also told us that sexual harassment happens a lot at their school, with most of it taking place online and on their phones. Often, kids ask classmates to send nude pictures back and forth, and harass the ones who refuse.
We checked the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Education’s School Environmental Safety Incident Report (SESIR) and discovered a total of 624 sexual harassment complaints between Brevard, Flagler, Lake, Marion, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole, Sumter and Volusia school districts.
Of those, 407 were reported in Orange County Public Schools. Orange County is the fourth-largest district in the state, with more than 260 schools and around 191,648 students.
“It happened to me once,” Nathan said. “Someone touched me and I didn't like it -- so I went to the teacher I told him. I don’t know whatever happened.”
Even though Nathan is only 11-years-old, he understands what sexual harassment is, as do many of his classmates at College Park Middle School, which is in the Orange County Public School District.
According to the SESIR, College Park Middle School (which used to be called Lee Middle School) reported 19 sexual harassment complaints, the highest number of any Orange County school.
The second-highest was at Westridge Middle School with 17 reports – three of which were forwarded to police.
Nathan and others at College Park Middle School said the school tries to teach them the difference between right and wrong. But even with that, they say it's still going on. And most kids don't report it when they see it.
“I just try to stay out of it,” said Terrence, an eighth-grader at College Park Middle School.
It turns out, it's not just happening in middle schools.
We talked to two high school students from Seminole County – one of whom is News 6 investigator Adrianna Iwasinski's daughter- to see just how young they were when they were first harassed.
”Fifth grade,” Sophia said.
“Seventh grade,” Erin said.
The two teenagers said it is all too common for kids to ask for nudes nowadays, mainly on social media platforms like SnapChat. And they say the students who refuse to do it get harassed and called names. And the people who do share them get shamed and humiliated.
“I feel like most girls won't tell another peer because they don’t want to be judged,” Erin said. “And I feel they don't want to tell an adult because they don't want to get in trouble.”
“You just brush it off and keep quiet,” Sophia said.
Dominique Lombardo, of Winter Park, is not surprised. She said her niece was sexually harassed when she was in middle school.
“My niece wound up homeschooling online,” Lombardo said.
So what are schools doing to counter the ongoing harassment?
Over at Orange County Public Schools, officials said they are doing things like restorative justice and mentoring programs to try to get results, and even creating videos using real students to try to teach kids the consequences.
They also have an Upstanders program that was created in conjunction with the Holocaust Center of Florida to teach students to stand up and speak out when they witness any sort of bullying.
“This is a national problem school districts and schools deal with this all across the country,” said Scott Howat, chief communications officer at Orange County Public Schools.
Howat reports they've seen a big drop in the number of harassment complaints over the past 2 years, including a 16 percent drop at College Park Middle School and 46 percent drop at Westridge Middle School. But he agrees more needs to be done.
“The internet, social media all of those things. Kids today see and know more today than they probably should,” Howat said.
Both kids and parents agree more should be done at home, too. One suggestion is to create a trusting environment where kids feel safe to talk to you about things that are happening to them, and happening to their friends. It's the first step in getting kids to speak up and take a stand.
When we checked the SESIR for the 2015-2016 school year a little deeper, we discovered hundreds of reported sex offenses in Central Florida Schools. There were a total of five reported sexual batteries: one at Lake County's Eustis High School, two at East Marion Elementary School in Marion County, one at Orange County's Maitland Middle School and one at PM Wells Charter Academy in Osceola County.
There also were a total of two reports to the state and police about sexual assaults at Osceola County's Zenith Accelerated Learning Academy and Brevard County's Palm Bay Magnet Senior High School.
Also in the state database, we counted a total of 401 sexual offenses reported at all Central Florida Schools combined.
Polk County had the highest number of reported offenses at 135 complaints filed with the state.
Fourteen of those were reported at Ridge Community High School and 13 were logged at Sleepy Hill Middle School.
All of them were reported to police.
Here are some examples of what was reported to police.
One police report out of Lakeland states in October 2015, a 13-year-old boy was arrested at Sleepy Hill Middle School, accused of lewd exhibition for reportedly exposing himself to a student during class. That same month another 13-year-old boy was arrested at the school, accused of sexual battery. That boy was accused of forcing a younger girl to perform oral sex on him while they played hide-and-seek in their neighborhood.
In February 2016, two boys were suspended from Eustis High School School and accused of lewd and lascivious molestation, simple battery, stalking and harassing a female classmate.
One of the boys was accused of putting his hands down the girl's shirt between her breasts, slapping her face, pulling her hair as he tried to put his hands down her pants and sending unsolicited nude pictures of himself on his cellphone. He's also accused of verbally abusing the girl. The other accused boy was seen grabbing the girl’s breasts and butt, and was also seen trying to put his hands between her legs. He's also accused of grabbing her hand to try to put it on his crotch.
For a look at whether any incidents occurred at a school attended by your children, click on our link to the right.File: Florida Department of Education’s School Environmental Safety Incident Report (SESIR)
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