Black Girls Equity Alliance wants Pittsburgh Public Schools to improve its sexual harassment prevention and response

The group and students plan to speak at a school board hearing Monday.

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MJ Slaby

Updated, 1:58 p.m. May 21

While #MeToo put a spotlight on sexual harassment, most of the conversation has been about adults in the workplace, said Sara Goodkind, a member of the Black Girls Equity Alliance in Pittsburgh.

“Many adults aren’t aware of what’s happening to girls at school,” she said, later adding, “Patterns start somewhere.”

In an effort to inform and collaborate with the Pittsburgh Public Schools Board of Directors, alliance members plan to give a letter to the the board at its Monday public hearing, where students will speak

The alliance — which was born of research efforts at Gwen’s Girls, a nonprofit focused on at-risk girls ages 8 to 18 — includes individuals, organizations and institutions working to end inequities affecting black girls in Allegheny County. Among those issues is the way schools prevent and respond to sexual assault, said alliance member Britney Brinkman, an associate professor in counseling psychology at Chatham University.

“We want to center their voices,” she said of students, adding that those who speak to the board Monday won’t share specific personal experiences but will talk more broadly about sexual harassment in schools and how schools responds.

A PPS policy adopted in May 1995 prohibits sexual harassment and aims to help students and non-students “recognize, understand, prevent and take corrective action” to address sexual harassment. The policy also includes information about a complaint form, as well as resources including definitions and laws.

Ebony Pugh, PPS spokesperson told The Incline in an email:

The District’s Student Services Department and Law Department have routinely trained staff groups (including social workers, counselors, school administrators) on the topic of sexual harassment and appropriate school response.  When schools review the Code of Student Conduct, the topics of bullying and harassment are to be a focus area since the prohibitions are outlined in the Code.

The alliance’s letter will combine asks and an offer to help. Ahead of the Monday hearing, Brinkman posted the letter in full on her blog. You can read that here.

While the letter was still being drafted last week, she shared some requests with The Incline, including:

  • reviewing polices
  • training for teachers
  • working with experts on best practices
  • creating a task force focused on eradicating sexual harassment
  • making changes to the strategic plan to address the prevention of and response to sexual and other forms of harassment
  • establishing a full-time Title IX coordinator.

Per the PPS website, its Title IX compliance officer is Assistant Superintendent Dara Ware Allen.

Proposed changes would benefit all students — not just black girls, Brinkman said. The group is also asking the board to “collaborate with us to eradicate sexual and other forms of harassment within schools that impacts all students, regardless of gender identity.”

This is an area that many schools struggle with, said Brinkman, who wrote a book about policies and practices for sexual harassment in K-12 schools in the U.S. and United Kingdom.

The letter is a way to say, “We want to work with you, and we are concerned about this,” she said. “…This is a first step, we don’t want this to be adversarial.”

Students respond

This effort follows the May 8 launch of PSA videos from Southwest Pa. Says No More addressing sexual harassment in K-12 schools. The video series features local high school students sharing their experiences.

Taylor Allderdice High School freshman Maya Shook, Goodkind’s daughter, participated in the videos through GirlGov, a civic engagement program for teens by the Women & Girls Foundation. She also talked to teachers and her principal about sexual harassment for an article for her journalism class.

Shook told The Incline that even though there’s a policy, it seems like students and teachers aren’t aware of what to do and sometimes don’t know what counts as sexual harassmentShe said she was talking to classmates about the issue, and they said they’d never been harassed until Shook pointed out that catcalling counts, too.

A focus on schools

In 2013, Gwen’s Girls asked Brinkman and Goodkind, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, and several others to create a research arm for the nonprofit, and a year later the Gwendolyn J. Elliott Institute was established.

The institute started doing equity summits, and at the first summit in October 2016, a report, which Goodkind helped create, was released — “Inequities Affecting Black Girls in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County” — and said, in part, that black girls in Allegheny County are 50 percent more likely than white girls to experience teen dating violence and are more than twice as likely to be raped.

Also per the report, “when girls, especially Black girls, are disciplined at school for disruptive behavior or fighting it is because they are defending themselves from harassment or assault.”

After the summit, Brinkman said, four working groups were formed to address inequities for black girls in health and wellness, education, child welfare and juvenile justice. Those groups later become the alliance.

As a member of the education working group, Brinkman said she heard over and over about black girls not feeling safe in school due to sexual harassment.

However, there is no data on local girls experiencing sexual harassment and the response they receive. While there are plans to collect local data, Goodkind said that shouldn’t stop work between the alliance and schools from happening now.

“We don’t have to wait,” she said.