Nearly half of all middle and high school students experienced sexual harassment in the past school year, according to a survey released Monday.
The study, conducted by the Association of American University Women, not only included harassment in the schools, but also digitally through text messaging, email and social networking sites.
Sexual harassment took its toll on students across the country, the survey said. More than eight out of 10 students said the harassment negatively affected their lives.
"Sexually harassed students who took part in the AAUW survey reported having trouble studying, not wanting to go to school, and feeling sick to their stomach," said the study.
While only nine percent of students reported incidents to school officials, the survey said students stayed home from school, dropped extra curricular activities and even changed schools to avoid the harassment.
"Too often, the more comfortable term bullying is used to describe sexual harassment, obscuring the role of gender and sex in these incidents," the study said. "Schools are likely to promote bullying prevention while ignoring or downplaying sexual harassment."
Sexual harassment, while often similar to bullying, is prohibited by Title 9 of the Education Amendments of 1972, according to the United States Department of Education.
“(Title 9) prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance,” said the U.S. Department of Education on its website.
More than half the students surveyed suggested being able to report harassment anonymously as a way to reduce the number of incidents. A systematic punishment for harassers was also a top suggestion from the roughly 2,000 students surveyed.
The survey suggested students did not openly report incidents of harassment for fear it would make the situation worse.
Sexual harassment is a growing trend in schools as sexual remarks are used increasingly as insults, said Bill Bond, a school safety expert for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, to the Associated Press.
"Words can cut a kid all the way to the heart," said Bond. "And when it's on the computers and cell phones, there's no escape. It's absolutely devastating and vicious to a kid."