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A local nonprofit has been pushing for awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in schools as the root cause of the much-publicized troubles in adult spaces.

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION: SSAIS - A 2011 survey from the American Association of University Women found 81 percent of K-12 students have experienced sexual harassment and 87 percent of those were negatively impacted. A hashtag gaining national attention this month has roots in a bungalow in Northeast Portland.

#MeTooK12 has been featured in The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, Education Week and several other national publications since a soft launch on New Year's Eve. That was when the founder of the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke, was the special guest to ring in the New Year at the ball drop in Times Square in New York City.

Esther Warkov and Joel Levin, Portland residents since 2015, founded Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (SSAIS), which works to promote awareness of the rampant problem of sexual harassment and assault in K-12 spaces. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Esther Warkov

They created the #MeTooK12 hashtag after this autumn's cascading revelations of sexual assault and harassment prompted many women to use the hashtag #MeToo to share that they, too, had been victimized to show how widespread the problem is. SSAIS, a tiny nonprofit, amplified their reach with a partnership with the National Women's Law Center, who helped officially launch the campaign on Jan. 9.

"One of our themes is 'connect the dots,'" Levin says. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world don't pop out of nowhere. "Our point was those attitudes and behaviors are shaped early, in K-12 schools. Ideas of male entitlement sort of go unchecked in schools."

That has consequences down the road, in college, workspaces or other aspects of adult life, Levin argues. The attitude is: "Since we were allowed to do this in school and got away with it, it's fine to do it in the workplace."

But Warkov and Levin complain that they have gotten very little traction for their ideas locally. The Portland Tribune is the first local news organization to do a story on #MeTooK12.

SSAIS produced a video, curriculum materials and an action guide, provided for free on their website and aimed specifically at the Portland metro area. They let the new superintendent and several high schools know about the campaign, but as far as they know, Portland Public Schools isn't using it.

"The response on the national level has been far better than it has been in Portland," Warkov said. "You would think that they might be eager to feature this resource for their community to use."

Warkov is also frustrated that PPS does not clearly label its Title IX Coordinator — a position required by federal law to organize a district's response to gender discrimination, sexual harassment and other barriers preventing students from accessing public education.

PPS spokeswoman Amber Shoebridge says the district is working on a job description and plans to hire a permanent Title IX coordinator soon. Until then, Elisa Schorr, a High School Programs director, is the interim and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Shoebridge says the district has a number of efforts to combat sexual harassment and assault in schools.

"Portland Public Schools is reviewing current practices and policies, as well as developing new trainings and procedures" around sexual harassment, Shoebridge says. In addition, "we are infusing our curriculum with evidence-based instruction around prevention of sexual violence, teen dating violence and domestic violence."

For example, she says, Franklin and Cleveland High Schools have advocates from Raphael House of Portland, a domestic violence agency. Also the district gets curriculum help from the Volunteers of America's domestic violence program Home Free.

Warkov says those programs typically do not educate students about their Title IX rights and schools' responsibility to provide equal education opportunities.

"The question in my mind is: why hasn't a full-time Title IX coordinator been a priority for the school district?" Warkov says.

"Sexual harassment is a community problem, not just a problem with the student who experienced it," she adds . "It's not enough for people to put their #MeToo stories on Facebook and on Twitter. We want people to take action to correct the situation."

See previous coverage: Nonprofit dedicated to educating public about gender harassment

Check it out:

Go to SSAIS.org to peruse their resources, such as an action guide or a checklist to see if your school district is in compliance with Title IX. Or check out the National Women's Law Center landing page: https://nwlc.org/resources/metook12/




Shasta Kearns Moore
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