Sexual Harassment: What you need to know

Cat calls in the hallway. Unwanted photos of genitalia AirDropped in the cafeteria. Lewd comments on an Instagram post. Too often misconstrued as jokes or inconveniences, these are all examples of sexual harassment.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and any verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can be perpetrated by anyone: friends, family, classmates, teachers, coaches or strangers.

In Jan. 2018, a nonprofit organization, Stop Street Harassment, conducted a survey to determine the prevalence of sexual harassment in the U.S. The results: 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.

Sexual harassment can lead to sexual assault which, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. This includes attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, forced sexual acts and rape. One in six American women and one in thirty-three American men have been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

Every single person has a right to report sexual harassment and assault. You don’t have to remain silent, and you don’t have to go through it alone. Please use the resources below to report and ask for help.

Is there a policy?

It’s right there, right in front of you. You don’t see it? Flip to page 20 of WHS’ student handbook. In the same list as “students shall not loiter in the lavatories” or “join a secret society,” there it is: “Students shall not engage in the sexual harassment of pupils or staff members.”

In a 2011 survey, the American Association of University Women found that 48 percent of students grades 7-12 experienced some form of sexual harassment that year ( The vast majority of this harassment went unreported. It remained hidden—in the locker rooms, the stairwells, online—and sent the terrifying message that sexual harassment in youth and teens isn’t an epidemic. It is.

“You hope that there are no incidents out there that are not being reported, you hope kids are coming forward when it’s happening,” said WHS’ Affirmative Action Officer and Assistant Principal Jim DeSarno. “But the main hope is that it’s just not going on at all.”

“We’re not hearing what we should be hearing,” said Director of Guidance Maureen Mazzarese. “It’s the obligation of every person in this building to have their eyes, ears and hearts open all the time for kids who look like they want to tell us something. But kids can do a really good job of not letting you know.”

Students are taught about consent and healthy relationships in their health classes. Teachers are instructed to preach respect, equality and kindness. Many parents have similar conversations with their children at home. So where is the disconnect between students being told to report sexual harassment and assault and actually reporting it? One possible explanation: an unclear reporting process.

The WHS student handbook tells students that they have the right to “file a formal grievance related to harassment.” However, the process of filing a grievance isn’t explained. In order to provide students in this issue with the steps to report sexual harassment, meetings had to be scheduled with both DeSarno and Mazzarese.

WHS is not alone in their lack of information regarding how to report sexual harassment. Westfield uses the phrase “sexual harassment” twice in their handbook. The Scotch-Plains-Fanwood student handbook never uses the phrase in  57 pages. Governor Livingston’s handbook is the same. However, between Westfield, Cranford, Summit, Montclair, Clark and Elizabeth, Westfield is the only district that does not specifically define sexual harassment or have a dedicated section in the student handbook.

The New Jersey Task Force on Campus Sexual Assault released a report in 2017 with a list of initiatives that college campuses should take to combat sexual harassment and assault. One of the recommendations: “Students should know how to confidentially report sexual violence and obtain counseling and services without being required to report the incident to authorities.”

Executive Director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault Patricia Teffenhart is concerned about secondary schools’ abilities to handle these incidents. In a article entitled “Schools should teach kids about sexual assault and consent, panel argues,” Teffenhart said: “We cannot reduce or eliminate sexual violence on college campuses if we are not willing to do the hard work back in our homes and in our communities. The students enrolling in institutions of higher education have been influenced their whole lives by the sociocultural norms that permit and promote rape culture.”

Whether WHS will update their policies and handbook is to be determined. Mazzarese believes revisions to the student handbook, including a section dedicated to sexual harassment, would be useful for the district. Teachers, administrators and guidance counselors in WHS all want to help students. DeSarno said, “We care about all of our students and we would hate that they would keep [sexual harassment or assault] in when it can be reported and used to help them.”

How to report

Three out of four sexual assaults go unreported. Below are the steps at WHS to report sexual harassment or assault:

1. Tell a trusted adult. This can be a teacher, counselor, nurse or principal—anyone you feel comfortable around.

2. The adult will send an initial report to the principal, summarizing what they know about the incident(s). They will also meet with the principal to discuss.

3. The report will be sent to the anti-bullying specialists at WHS, Ms. Maureen Mazzarese and Mr. Paul Valenzano, who will interview everyone involved and report their findings to the principal.

4. The principal will determine whether the incident is in fact harassment after a private BOE meeting.

5. Consequences and remedial steps will be recommended, regardless of the determination.

Note: Sexual assault is a criminal offense and will be reported to the police.

“Find that trusted person and tell them your story, because there’s tremendous healing just in the telling and the feeling of being heard.” – Maureen Mazzarese, Director of Guidance


National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline


Union County Rape Crisis Center


National Sexual Assault Hotline