#MeTooK12 Is Giving a Much-Needed Voice to Young Victims of Sexual Harassment and Assault

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“I’ve signed your death warrant,” Judge Aquilina said to former Olympic U.S. Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, when she sentenced him today to 175 years in prison for sexual abusing an astounding number of minors that were under his care. “I find that you don’t get it; that you’re a danger. That you remain a danger,” Aquilina said. She added, “I wouldn’t send my dogs out to you, sir.”

With more than 150 women and girls testifying in court about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Nassar, our nation has been left reeling at how so many children could have been abused without anyone knowing.

It’s clear that we have a problem. Yet when the hashtag #MeTooK12 started circulating the internet a few weeks ago — a spinoff of the #MeToo tag that dominated the internet last year — even I was caught off guard at how much sexual abuse is occurring in our school systems. It’s a dirty little secret permeating grades K-12 that we don’t seem to talk much about.

Esther Warkov and Joel Levin, though, are talking about it. After their high school-aged daughter was assaulted on an overnight field trip in 2012, they co-founded the nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault In Schools to raise awareness of students’ rights under Title IX — a civil rights law which states that no person in the U.S., based on sex, shall be subjected to discrimination under an educational program.

However, Levin tells Babble: “Although our message received some attention, it wasn’t being heard as loudly as we would like.” With Warkov chiming in, they explain that in order to “bring attention to the epidemic of K-12 sexual harassment and assault” it seemed fairly natural to create the hashtag #MeTooK12, after Tarana Burke’s groundbreaking work with the #MeToo movement last year.

As a rape victim myself, I first briefly thought, “Well, how lucky am I that this happened to me when I was older? Because I can’t imagine going through this as a child.” But, I say the thought was brief, because then I suddenly remembered a time when I was a freshman in high school, and due to a scheduling error, found myself as the only girl in an auto mechanics class; a class full of boys who quickly took notice of me being the only girl.

After being unrelentingly harassed by my male classmates — who took turns trying to one-up each other by suggesting what I might do to them if we were alone — things took a dangerous turn when one boy locked me in the walk-in tool cage with him, groped me, and then stuffed a dollar down my pants for the rest of the class to applaud.

He left feeling triumphant, and I ran crying to the bathroom, where my male teacher stood outside and half demanded, half begged me to come out.

When my parents reported the incident to the school, the teacher, a young guy, didn’t really know what to do. So, his solution was to have me work alone and tell the boys to stay away from me.

Looking back now, I can see how this incident was the first step on the path I took to being raped a few years later. My boundary lines were blurred, my self-respect was skewed, and the boys walking that path with me were never taught that what they were doing was wrong.

Jennifer Heis clearly understood this when she tweeted:

“When events like this happen in kindergarten and are just dismissed as “boys being boys,” overtime [sic] this emboldens them. They may grow-up into 12 year-old boys that grab your breasts in class and ask if they are going to have to rape you (happened to me) #MeTooK12

Schools don’t know how to handle sexual assault — and that is a huge issue. Sex assault education seems to kick into high gear in college, but the reality that the #MeTooK12 campaign shows us is that it needs to start much, much earlier.

Jumping on the #MeTooK12 movement, Michelle Seywala says it best in her tweet:

“Our K-12 schools still don’t know how to appropriately respond to sexual assault/harassment. This deprives students of their vital right to an education and has to change.”

People like Nassar need to be stopped before they even get started. It’s about time that we start talking about these issues now, when they are occurring every day in the buildings where we send our children to learn about life.

I cheered when I saw the Know Your IX tweet:

“To better serve K-12 students facing sexual harassment, we first have to provide K-12 students a platform to share their experiences. And that’s why #MeTooK12 is critical: it’s finally bringing sexual violence in secondary schools to the forefront of this movement.”

Our children deserve better than to start learning about sexual assault after it’s already happened to them. And I know this, because just like Levin, Warkov, and the many voices speaking out on Twitter, I’ve experienced firsthand what happens when it’s not talked about.

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