Sexual violence: An all-encompassing, non-legal term that refers to crimes like sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse,”
RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network)

Sexual violence experienced by adolescents and young adults is a public health issue that can adversely affect lifelong opportunity and well-being. According to a report, “Sexual Assault in Adolescents,” sexual violence during childhood triples an individual’s likelihood of experiencing future sexual or physical abuse and may increase the chances of becoming a perpetrator later in life.  

 The most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 2011 – 2021, by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveals many concerning statistics:

  • Almost 20% of female U.S. high school students experienced sexual violence, with this percentage rising from 2017 to 2021.
  • Nearly 15% of female students reported having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they didn’t want to.
  • Multiracial students were more likely than students from all other racial and ethnic groups to experience sexual violence.

Sexual violence is described in the CDC report as “being forced by anyone to do sexual things — including kissing, touching or being physically forced to have sexual intercourse — when they do not want to.”

Adolescence is a time of rapid brain development, in which the processing of information begins to switch from the emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) to the logical part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex). According to Stanford Medicine, the rational part of a teen’s brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25 or so. When sexual violence is experienced during this critical stage of development, it can activate the body’s biological stress response systems, resulting in behavioral and emotional changes leading to adverse academic performance. Teenagers are teenagers, no matter where they reside in the world. 

Results of a small London, England study of 75 adolescents aged 13-17 onboarded into the research within six weeks of a sexual assault and followed for approximately a year during the study found that participants exhibited a persistent absence from school of greater than 30 days from school, doubling between study entry and end, from 22% to 47%. Three participants younger than 16 were not in school at the end of the study. Qualitative data found this strong association between assault and persistent absence from school to be multifactorial, including:

  • Court hearings and other appointments affected attendance
  • Mental health issues (post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression) affected concentration and performance
  • Sleep problems such as nightmares, insomnia, and flashbacks led to difficulty waking up and getting to school on time
  • Panic attacks and agoraphobia kept some participants housebound
  • Fear of seeing the assailant at school if the assailant was a fellow pupil

One study participant was quoted, “For a while, I just couldn’t do it [school], I couldn’t, I didn’t want to be around people, I just wanted to be alone. I even used to find it hard to get out of my bed, I just wanted to be in the dark, zoned out.”

The research also determined there was a two-way relationship between study participants’ mental health and disengagement from education. Qualitative data revealed that participants’ anxiety and depressive symptoms were detrimental to academic performance, which led to further sleep and mental health problems, resulting in a circuitous pattern of adverse effects. In addition, outbursts of aggression and anger led to disciplinary issues, particularly if teachers were unaware of the assault.

Even when staff were aware of the participant’s stories, the students reported few, if any, allowances made to accommodate their classwork struggles or to acknowledge the effects of their experiences on their academic performance.  One student noted, “ […] so I didn’t go to school for a long time, then going back, so then I was behind, and I’m not coming in some days because I just feel like I just don’t want to see anyone and then into class, I wouldn’t concentrate like it feels just all really long so my school was just like, your attendance is really bad like you’re not going to get good [grades] […] so it was a thing where it was best me just to drop out and just … yeah.”

Those students who did not drop out — permanently or temporarily — often repeated a year or moved to another school.

How Schools Can Help

As schools carry out their mission of education and achievement, educators must also recognize the effect traumatic experiences can have on classroom success. Therefore, understanding the public health implications of traumatic exposure and becoming “trauma-informed” is a critical component of the education system.

Funded by legislation passed by the U.S. Congress in 2000, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has developed tools to help teachers, staff, and administrators understand and respond to the needs of traumatized children. According to the fact sheet “Trauma-Informed Schools for Children in K-12: A System Framework,” a trauma-informed school recognizes the behavioral, emotional, and academic impact of traumatic stress and responds appropriately. Instead of issuing punishment for stress reactions from traumatized students, a trauma-informed school provides practical skills to maintain a favorable climate for both students and teachers, and cultivates a supportive learning environment for educational achievement.

NCTSN’s Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators offers the following suggestions (among others) for all levels of personnel working within a school system on how to help a traumatized child:

Give choices. Because trauma events usually include a loss of control, providing a child with choices (when appropriate) can provide a sense of safety.

Set consequences rather than punishments. Set clear, firm limits for inappropriate behavior with logical – rather than punitive – consequences.

Recognize that behavior may be driven by trauma. Be aware that even the most disruptive behaviors may be transient and driven by trauma-related anxiety.

Be aware of and sensitive to trauma “triggers.” For example, victims of natural disasters might react very badly to storm warnings or threatening weather. Children may increase behaviors near the anniversary of a traumatic event.

Anticipate difficult times. Many kinds of situations may be reminders of the trauma. If you are able to identify reminders, you can help prepare the child for the situation.  

Warn children of activities outside of the routine. For example, turning off the lights or making a sudden loud noise.

Be aware of other children’s reactions to the traumatized child. Try to protect both the traumatized child from peers’ curiosity as well as protect classmates from the details of a child’s trauma.

Understand that children cope by reenacting trauma through play and interactions with others. Some children will provoke teachers in order to replay abusive situations at home. Resist their efforts to draw you into a negative repetition of the trauma.

Be aware of quiet children who “fly beneath the radar.” Quiet children may not appear to have behavioral problems but may have symptoms of avoidance and depression just as severe as students who act out. Because of a lack of behavioral disruption, these children often do not get the help they need.

Understand that “compassion fatigue” is real. Also referred to as “secondary traumatic stress,” compassion fatigue can develop from exposure to trauma through the children with whom you work. Self-care is necessary. Don’t hesitate to seek support for yourself.

– National Sexual Assault Hotline (24/7 support): Call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat

– Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 or chat to reach a volunteer Crisis Counselor

– Center for Positive Behavioral Intervention & Supports: Supporting and Responding to Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: Evidenced-Based Practices for Educators

– National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators


Clarke, V., Goddard, A., Wellings, K., Hirve, R., Casanovas, M., Bewley, S., Viner, R., Kramer, T., & Khadr, S. (2021). Medium-term health and social outcomes in adolescents following sexual assault: A prospective mixed-methods cohort study.