10/24/2016 05:31 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2017

Why Are So Many Schools Not Reporting Sexual Harassment And Bullying Allegations?

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, a time when survivors, advocates, and concerned citizens come together for a national conversation about the disturbing prevalence of bullying and sexual harassment in K-12 schools nationwide. Many surveys show that significant numbers of students experience this type of bullying and sexual harassment each year, especially girls and LGBT students. But when it comes to reporting specific incidences of bullying and harassment based on sex, all too many school districts "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil." That's a mistake with potentially tragic and far reaching consequences.

An American Association of University Women (AAUW) analysis of the U.S. Department of Education's recently released Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) showed 67 percent of local education agencies (LEAs) in the United States reported ZERO allegations of sexual harassment or bullying during the 2013-14 school year. That number just defies commonsense. Now, you may be thinking: Isn't the presence of zeros good news? Well, I'm skeptical and I'm not alone. These hard-to-believe zeros show that many of our schools are failing to recognize, address, and report the sexual harassment we know our students--especially girls and LGBT students--are struggling with every day. If schools are reporting zeros, it's likely that they also haven't taken the necessary steps to educate the school community about bullying and sexual harassment, including what they can do when it occurs and how to report it. These zeros suggest that safe and transparent reporting processes have not been implemented or circulated to the community in order to encourage such reporting.

AAUW won't take these numbers at face value, because our own research paints a starkly different picture. After AAUW's analysis of this troubling data, our state affiliates in 42 states sent letters to governors asking for the state to address the issue and correct the numbers where appropriate. To date, AAUW members have received responses from 18 states. The results have been shared with the U.S. Department of Education, and we will be working to get additional federal resources to the states to help them understand and accurately complete this important data collection. The message is clear: Governors and school administrators must take concrete steps to educate the community, improve schools' response, and openly and honestly confront sexual harassment and bullying in our K-12 schools. It is critical to understand the full scope of the problem to create properly targeted solutions.‎

Since 1968, the CRDC has provided the tools necessary to hold states, districts, and schools that receive federal funding accountable for enforcement of all civil rights for our nation's students. In the past several years, the CRDC has been improved to shed additional light on the pervasiveness of sex discrimination in our schools. AAUW appreciates that the data includes several important, school-specific gender equity points that are helpful to advocates, parents, students, educators, and Title IX coordinators at schools nationwide. But for this data to be useful, it must be accurate.

The CRDC data should be a wakeup call for schools. The information it provides is vital to promoting Title IX compliance in local communities. This data sheds light on a problem that, if unchecked, not only impacts kids' educations today but can undermine their safety later. For AAUW, proactively and consistently addressing sexual harassment in our K-12 schools today is the bedrock prevention method to preventing campus sexual assault later. To find out more about what your school is doing to end bullying and harassment based on sex, I urge parents, students, and advocates to locate their school's Title IX coordinator and bring AAUW's findings to their attention.

Schools owe it to students and parents to get these numbers right. With good data, real prevention can take place. The seeds of harassment are planted in a child's formative years. It's up to schools to address these problems head on instead of allowing them to grow into a more substantive problem that comes home to roost on our college campuses and in the nation's workplaces.

The full 2013-14 data set is available online from the U.S. Department of Education. Members of the public can visit the CRDC site to look up data for individual schools, school districts, and states.