Fighting for Women's Equality

Building a Culture of Equity for All Girls in Our K-12 Schools

October 19, 2016 | by

Educators in our K-12 schools are charged not just with imparting knowledge to students, but with shaping their social behavior. What happens at school impacts girls profoundly, affecting not only their access to economic opportunities, but how they value themselves and what roles they can envision occupying in society.

As teachers well know, it is no easy task to get children to focus on information while managing conflicts between students and tailoring instruction to individual needs. Nor is it a simple matter to create a sense of community among the staff, students, parents, and other stakeholders that make up the diverse ecosystem of every school district. We understand that achieving gender equity in schools requires multifaceted and flexible strategies that can be adapted for use in districts with vastly different geographic, economic, and demographics profiles. We know that just as in other institutions, everyone walks through the schoolhouse door with their own life experiences, cultural values, and implicit biases, which too often operate to replicate gender and racial oppression in the classroom. There is no single training, best practice, or instructional strategy that can untangle this web. To achieve real and sustainable change, we have to build a culture of gender equity in our schools. 

ERA is actively working with school districts in the Bay Area to do just that. In collaboration with other organizations that serve girls of color, we are leading an innovative partnership between Alliance for Girls, a regional network of organizations serving girls, and Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to address the barriers to equity facing girls of color. Those barriers are reflected not only in disparate graduation rates and test scores, but in school discipline statistics: for example, even though African American girls make up only 32% of female students in OUSD schools, they represent two out of every three girls who are suspended. To better understand why, Alliance for Girls held focus groups and asked girls of color in OUSD schools what they felt their biggest challenges were. The results are set forth in the report, Valuing Girls’ Voices: The Lived Experiences of Girls of Color in OUSD.

We learned a lot from the girls who participated in those focus groups, including that sexual harassment is a pervasive problem in OUSD schools. Girls at several schools reported that teachers failed to intervene when they were called “bitches,” “sluts,” and “hos” by boys. At one school, girls reported that on what boys branded “Slap-Ass Fridays,” boys walked up and touched their behinds.  

These girls’ voices are being heard: in response to the report, OUSD formed a Title IX Collaborative Working Group to review and revise the district’s sexual harassment policy and develop an implementation plan to address sexual harassment at all of the district’s 118 schools. The team includes ERA Senior Staff Attorney Becky Peterson-Fisher; OUSD staff with leadership roles in restorative justice, behavioral health management, and sex education; and Nzingha Dugas, the first Program Director of OUSD’s newly-formed African American Girls and Young Women Achievement Program. Together, we will create and implement a model sexual harassment policy that is consistent with OUSD’s vision for educational equity. Throughout this process, we will engage OUSD girls of color on Alliance for Girls’ Girls Leadership Team, and obtain feedback from other stakeholders through open community meetings.

ERA is also engaged in collaborative work with the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District in Sonoma County to build a culture of gender equity at Technology High, the district’s prestigious science, technology, engineering, and math (“STEM”) education program, where more than two-thirds of the student body is male. ERA got involved after being contacted by the family of a student who experienced gender-based harassment on the school’s robotics team. Even though she was constantly put down by boys, she became the first female team leader in the history of Technology High’s robotics program and led her team to place third in the prestigious competition.   

In the course of representing this student, we reached out to district leadership about the systemic issues of gender inequity that this student’s experience illustrated, including the lopsided gender ratio among students. We are happy to report that the district accepted our invitation to work collaboratively with us on multiple fronts to build a culture of gender equity. The efforts and commitments made to date include analyzing application and admissions data and reviewing selection procedures, exploring new recruitment and outreach strategies, clarifying the district’s sexual harassment and nondiscrimination policies and improving their dissemination. Technology High has already reformed the process by which robotics team leaders are selected to be gender-equitable, prioritized school climate issues, and committed to providing implicit bias training to its teachers. We look forward to continuing our work with the school and supporting young feminists like our client, who are fighting to ensure schools are places all girls can thrive.

Building gender equity in K-12 schools is an integral part of our Strong Girls Initiative. Learn more about the initiative’s work at


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