Detroit Free Press May 16, 2002
Danielle Shapiro knew what to do when, as an eighth-grader three years ago, a classmate made a sexual threat toward her.
GETTING THE VIDEO “Straight Talk About Sexual Harassment . . . What You Don’t Know CAN Hurt You!” a video and manual for school districts, is available through Oakland Schools, the county’s intermediate school district, and Kopicki Consulting Services.
The resource is targeted to middle and high school teachers and costs $125.
To order, call Mark Hansen at Oakland Schools at 248-209-2059, or Maria Kopicki at Kopicki Consulting Services at 586-739-8972.
At any other school, she might have been confused about her rights. But this was Avondale Middle School, where students themselves declared zero tolerance on sexual harassment.
She consulted the school’s policy, created just a year before by Maria Kopicki’s eighth-grade law class. Then she talked to an adult. The boy was suspended.
“It raised my awareness, and it made him accountable for what he had done,” said Shapiro, 17, now a junior at Avondale High School.
Today, four years after Kopicki’s 26 students banded together to draw the line on sexual harassment, the policy has become a national model.
The Avondale School District quickly adopted it for all of its schools. In addition, the policy was named a top 10 student civic project by a national civic organization, it is credited with reducing sexual harassment complaints by 90 percent at the school and is behind the recently released manual and video on sexual harassment for school districts.
The students — challenged by Kopicki to change the world — took on the vague language in the school’s policy book and created a more detailed and clear harassment policy. It draws a line between flirting and harassment, and defines violations by three levels: mild, moderate and severe.
Whistling, making catcalls and reciting dirty jokes are mild, while grabbing, stalking and making sexual threats are severe.
The policy also calls for specific punishment, ranging from contacting parents on both sides to suspension or expulsion.
“It leaves no room for people to say ‘I didn’t know.’ It has clear ideas about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate,” Shapiro said.
Complaints at the Rochester Hills school have tumbled from a high of nearly 40 in 1998 to just 2 or 3 this school year, principal Derrick Fries said.
But much more has happened. Kopicki, who said she knew little about sexual harassment before her students took on the project four years ago, became inspired to take what the students had done a step further.
She and Oakland Schools just released “Straight Talk About Sexual Harassment,” a resource guide for schools that takes a broader look at sexual harassment issues and helps schools develop policies.
It was clear from the public response to the student policy that “there is a huge need to educate kids and teachers about sexual harassment,” Kopicki said.
The new materials already are creating a buzz. Kopicki and a few students spoke at the April meeting of the state Board of Education. Afterward, impressed board members asked state school administrators to study whether the new guide should be recommended for use in schools statewide.
That April presentation came at the request of Kathleen Straus, president of the state board.
“I thought this was the kind of project other people should know about,” Straus said.
Sexual harassment continues to be a perplexing problem for schools. A June 2001 survey by the American Association of University Women found 4 of 5 eighth- through 12th-graders who responded said they have experienced sexual harassment in their schooling.
Ronald Stephens, executive director of the California-based National School Safety Center, said clear policies are needed.
“Student policies become the basis for the contractual agreement between students and the school system for managing behavior,” Stephens said.
Avondale High senior John Lockard, 18, helped create the policy.
“A lot of the struggles teenagers have now are related to feeling powerless. A lot of kids feel they don’t have the ability to change or have control over anything. The fact that we were able to take control over anything tells us we have the power to do something.”
It’s not just the threat of punishment that has helped incidents decline, Avondale High junior Christine Gosdzinski, 16, said.
“More than anything, they understand the effect it has on people,” she said.
Contact LORI HIGGINS at 248-591-5625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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