Statewide Assessment of Sexual Harassment in Virginia High Schools: Prevalence and Impact on Student Well-Being

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Crowley, Brittany, Clinical Psychology - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Cornell, Dewey, Human Services, University of Virginia

Sexual harassment is a prevalent yet understudied challenge adolescents face in high school. This three-paper dissertation investigated the prevalence of sexual harassment in Virginia high schools, its association with negative student well-being, and whether positive school climate serves as a protective factor that can reduce both the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment on students. Data for all three studies were obtained from student responses to the Virginia Secondary School Climate Survey. The first study examined 2016 data from 62,679 students (grades 9-12) in 320 high schools, and the second and third studies used 2018 data from 85,750 students (grades 9-12) in 322 high schools.
The first paper (Crowley, Datta, Stohlman, Cornell, & Konold, 2019) sought to examine the prevalence of sexual harassment by testing a new, brief measure, and to identify its association with school climate. This paper investigated three research questions: (1) Is there evidence to support a 4-item multilevel measure of school sexual harassment? (2) What is the prevalence of sexual harassment in a statewide high school sample, and how does sexual harassment vary across student characteristics of gender, grade level, race/ethnicity, and SES? (3) Is an authoritative school climate associated with lower levels of sexual harassment for high school students at the individual and/or school levels? As hypothesized, results of a multilevel confirmatory factor analysis indicated good fit for a single sexual harassment factor at both student and school levels. A multiway analysis of variance demonstrated that sexual harassment was prevalent among 38.4% of students and varied across demographic groups. Multilevel hierarchical regression analyses indicated that an authoritative school climate accounted for 5.7% of the student-level variance and 38.3% of the school-level variance in sexual harassment scores. Overall, these results support the use of the 4-item sexual harassment scale to measure student experiences of sexual harassment in schools. Furthermore, findings demonstrate that sexual harassment is prevalent among high school students, and suggest that fostering an authoritative school climate could help reduce sexual harassment rates in schools.
The second paper (Crowley & Cornell, 2020) examined the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment compared to bullying, an overlapping yet theoretically distinct construct that has received comparatively greater attention in school victimization research and policy. This paper examined three research questions: 1) What is the prevalence of sexual harassment compared to bullying in high school, and how does prevalence differ across gender, grade, race/ethnicity, and SES? (2) How is sexual harassment associated with student well-being indicators, as compared to bullying? (3) What is the association of a single experience of sexual harassment with student distress? As hypothesized, descriptive statistics and multivariate analysis of variance indicated that sexual harassment and bullying were similarly prevalent (40.7% harassed vs. 38.8% bullied, with 24.6% reporting both) and rates of both differed across demographic groups of gender, grade, race/ethnicity, and SES. Hierarchical regression models indicated that sexual harassment and bullying were similarly associated with all eight well-being indicators, and students who experienced both sexual harassment and bullying reported distress scores greater than two standard deviations above the mean. Independent sample t-tests indicated that even a single experience of sexual harassment was associated with higher student distress, with experiences of sexual rumors being the most distressing. These results suggest that attention to either bullying or sexual harassment alone would not yield an adequate assessment of adolescent victimization experiences, and prevention efforts should consider both forms of aggression in order to provide safer, healthier learning environments for students.
The third paper (Crowley, Cornell, & Konold, under review) built on the previous two papers by examining whether positive school climate characteristics, demonstrated in Paper 1 to be associated with lower rates of sexual harassment, are also associated with less-negative well-being outcomes for harassed students. This paper investigated one primary research question: Do school climate measures of disciplinary structure, student support, and engagement moderate the relationship between sexual harassment and student well-being? As hypothesized, hierarchical interaction models indicated that perceptions of school climate moderated the relations between sexual harassment experiences and student well-being, such that victims of sexual harassment who perceived their schools as more highly structured and supportive, and those who reported higher engagement in their schools, reported less-negative outcomes on measures of well-being. For example, when students were harassed in less supportive schools, their rate of attempting suicide was 22%, whereas when they were harassed in more supportive schools their rate of attempting suicide was only 6%. Furthermore, there was a larger difference in suicide attempts between students who were harassed vs. not harassed in low support schools (16% difference) as compared to those who were harassed vs. not harassed in high support schools (4% difference). These results suggest that stakeholders can mitigate the impact of sexual harassment on students by fostering a positive school climate.
Although these studies were correlational and cannot establish a causal effect, the results suggest that in order to reduce the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment, stakeholders should monitor the scope of the problem, understand the impact of the problem (particularly in relation to distinct yet overlapping types of victimization), and find ways to reduce the prevalence and impact of the problem on students through means such as fostering a positive school climate.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
sexual harassment, authoritative school climate, bullying, mental health
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