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While schoolyard conflicts are a natural part of growing up, harassment never should be. Yet a large number of young people, girls especially, face some form of harassment during their schoolage years. A national report released this spring by the Associated Press disclosed that during a four-year period, 17,000 cases of harassment were reported in grades K-12. According to a 2011 study by the American Association of University Women, 56 percent of girls in seventh through 12th grades were harassed at school or by a school-related person.

While there is no comprehensive data on harassment in Catholic schools and studies by the National Center for Education Statistics show bullying is less prevalent in private schools than in public schools, Catholic schools are not immune from the problem.

To protect the young people within their walls, schools in the Archdiocese of Portland have taken a number of approaches. In archdiocesan schools, a modified Called to Protect — the training adult volunteers and school and church staff (anyone working with young children) must complete — and a curriculum called Second Step give students the social tools to stay safe and build character, incorporating values that preclude hurting and disrespecting others.

Harassment is “something we take seriously,” said Gary Beckley, associate superintendent of Catholic schools and former principal of Holy Trinity School in Beaverton. “I’m speaking not only as an educator but as a dad with four daughters. You just want them to be safe.”

Harassment can take many forms. It can be verbal acts, like name-calling, images and graphics, written statements, or other actions that may be physically threatening, harmful or humiliating. It can include sexual harassment and cyberbullying.

Servants of Mary Sister Sarah Deeby, a counselor at Northwest Catholic Counseling Center in Portland, pointed out that some harassment is inflicted by other girls.

She sees social exclusion, for example, as a form of harassment. “When somebody in a group is singled out for something — the way they dress, where they live — it affects girls’ self-esteem and can be a reason they seek counseling,” she said.

Comprehensive programs

In archdiocesan schools, Called to Protect is used with middle school students and high schoolers. Non-archdiocesan schools implement their own lessons, although La Salle Prep in Milwaukie, De La Salle North in Portland and Valley Catholic in Beaverton also use Called to Protect. Second Step is a grade K-eight curriculum that teaches emotional and social skills.

Chris Storm is campus minister at Holy Trinity School in Beaverton and teaches Second Step there. Middle school segments include dating behavior, peer pressure and cyberbullying, which includes sexual bullying.

Storm sees the Second Step program’s value in its teaching personal assertiveness, conflict resolution and how to maintain boundaries at every grade level. “It builds a skill set that comes into play when issues arise,” he said.

Jeannie Ray-Timoney, the archdiocese’s other associate superintendent, is also a former principal, at St. Matthew School in Hillsboro. She stresses that the Second Step program supports the archdiocesan schools’ vision of what a Catholic school environment should be. “We want our schools to be places where there is respect for one another, inclusivity and the love of Christ. We are educating children to be Christ-like.”

Catholic schools send out letters to homes about Called to Protect and Second Step. “Sometimes the material forces conversations — discussions that should start in the home,” said Ray-Timoney. “And the material helps parents with those conversations.”

That in turn means kids will be less likely to seek information on the internet, where content is often inaccurate.

Social media’s role

It’s now well-documented, and not surprising, that the internet and social media add a new platform for harassment, said Michelle Strear, a counselor at Jesuit High School in Beaverton. But teens are unlikely to disengage from cyberspace.

Nancy Jo Sales, author of “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers,” published in 2016, said in a New York Post story last year that many girls she’s interviewed told her, “‘Social media is destroying our lives … but we can’t go off it, because then we’d have no life.’” Sales said there is “this whole perception that (teenage girls) love social media, but in many ways, they hate it. But they don’t stop, because that’s where teen culture is happening.”

A 2014 study published in the journal “Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking” found only 1 in 5 teens who have been sexually harassed online report it to social media providers.

“Technology has definitely amplified incidents of harassment and allowed it to be broadcast to a much wider audience,” said Brian Devine, vice principal for student life at La Salle Prep.

A high school counselor may be one of the first adults a teen turns to for help with online or in-person harassment. At Jesuit, the first step is for a counselor “to talk through what happened, affirming that harassment is never OK and that we all deserve to be treated in a certain way,” said Strear.

If the harassment was one comment and the student wants to handle it herself, Strear will role play with the student to help her formulate a response should the harassment occur again. If a situation is more extreme, one of the two deans may become involved.

Devine said they take a similar approach at La Salle and “may empower the student to respond themselves,” depending on the severity of the situation. If needed, parents will be included in the conversation.

Strear said although female students are more susceptible to harassment, it affects males as well. She said it’s not uncommon for male harassment to be related to sexual identity or perceived sexual identity.

Teens prone to harass “can look for a weakness in an individual, be it appearance, body parts, clothing or sexual orientation,” she said.

An ounce of prevention

Preventative and educational measures at Catholic high schools include the dissemination of a student handbook that addresses bullying and harassment. This year Jesuit and La Salle also partnered with other local public and private schools — including St. Mary’s Academy and Central Catholic in Portland — to roll out a program called Green Dot. The Green Dot strategy uses bystander intervention as a way to prevent dating violence, bullying and harassment. “It’s about noticing situations that have the potential to escalate and then de-escalating them,” said Strear.

“We appreciate that the program … empowers everyone to engage in creating a safe and inclusive atmosphere at our school,” added Devine.

Cathy Shannon, director of the Child and Youth Protection Office for the archdiocese, notes another piece intended to keep students safe. As per state law, every Catholic school has a poster advising both students and adults that action needs to be taken in every case of boundary violation or sexual abuse. In the case of boundary violations, the principal needs to be told of the concern. If the principal is not available, individuals also can contact the Child Protection Office. In the case of abuse, the matter needs to go directly to child protective services or the police.

Addressing harassment at Catholic schools supports the Gospel values built into the fabric of community life.

“We ask students to see the presence of God in one another and that can be a powerful reminder to respect the dignity of everyone in our community,” said Devine.,,