Experts Advice about discussing sexual harassment with youngsters

This column appeared in a number of ECM/SunCurrent newspapers during December, 2017


Experts’ advice about discussing sexual harassment with youngsters

The rash of reports about sexual harassment, intimidation and rape convinced me it was time to ask some experts for their advice to parents, grandparents and guardians. So during the first week of December, I talked with two experienced authorities, Katie Eichele and Walter Roberts.

Staff at the University of Minnesota’s University Relations office suggested that I talk with Ms. Eichele. She directs the Aurora Center for Advocacy & Education, which works University of Minnesota and Augsburg students and faculty. It focuses on “sexual , relationship violence and stalking.”

Eichele stressed the importance of beginning early and having ongoing age-appropriate discussions with children about how to have “healthy lives and relationships.” The discussion can begin by talking about boundaries and asking or giving permission. For example, she wants young children to know that they can decide whether to return someone’s high-five”

Adults should stress that children have the right to create boundaries about where and how people can touch them. She also urged adults to talk ahead of time, before there are problems, about what children should do if someone has made them uncomfortable with their touching or comments.

Adults should continue talking with youngsters as they enter school. Eichele mentioned one national study which found that 43 percent of middle school students surveyed said they had been the victim of some form of bullying or harassment. She urged adults to take children seriously if they say this is happening. Children need caring adults to support them and help resolve problems. And if the first educator, whether it’s a teacher, coach or principal, doesn’t help, Eichele recommended “going up the chain of command.” In her experience, “Policies and laws are only as good as those who enforce them. If you find someone is not enforcing, you need to get others involved.”

Eichele also stresses the importance of what she calls “bystander intervention.” She urges people those who witness inappropriate behavior to speak up, supporting victims.

The Aurora Center has information on its website,

The center offers training, though they have to charge if it does not involve University of Minnesota or Augsburg staff.

Along with Eichele, I talked with Walter Roberts, who recently retired after more than three decades of being a public school teacher, counselor, faculty member at Minnesota State Mankato and leader in the Minnesota School Counselors Association. He’s written three books about violence prevention and bullying. Gov. Mark Dayton appointed him co-chair of a statewide commission that developed guidelines, later put into law, about bullying policies in schools.

Roberts believes that recent events make this “a golden opportunity” to discuss bullying, sexual harassment and violence with youngsters: “We have to turn these events into positive learning experiences.”

Roberts stressed two principles for discussion: “Respect – this must be central to how we deal with others –­ and boundaries, both physical touch and psychological use of intimidation.”

He agreed with Eichele that adults need to talk with children and teenagers about these issues.

He explained: “It’s not enough to say, ‘This is how you should behave.’ Kids are watching us all the time. They learn from us during every waking moment. Adolescents are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy in adults.”

Roberts explained that adults need to help youngsters find people and procedures in schools and in work situations where they can express concerns and grievances. He’s found “some situations are toxic.”

He’s a strong advocate of accountability and fair or due process. Roberts pointed out that some situations are cut and dried. He added: “Others are more complicated. We have not figured out how to manage this.”

While stressing the importance of boundaries, Roberts hopes that we won’t lose our ability to “share happiness and joy” with others. “Pats on the back and hugs can be wonderful. I hope we don’t lose them,” he said.

Eichele and Roberts agreed that recent events make this a “teachable moment.”  Caring adults will discuss and model behavior that is and is not acceptable.


Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher and administrator and PTA president, now directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, or @JoeNathan9249.