Ruling Out Sexual Harassment.
A teacher asks a high school senior for a hug in return for an extension on a term paper deadline.
This seemingly innocent exchange may fit the definition of "quid pro quo" sexual harassment, according to federal law. This type of sexual harassment occurs when a school employee threatens to base an education-related decision on a student's submission to unwelcome sexual conduct.
"Quid pro quo" and "hostile environment" are the two most common forms of sexual harassment causing legal disputes in schools nationwide--in some cases as early as the elementary grades--says Cindi Chmielewski, staff counsel for the National Education Association in Washington, D.C. The NEA says a "hostile environment" exists "when a student is subject to unwelcome sexual conduct that is so severe, persistent or pervasive that it limits the student's ability to benefit from his or her education, [including] sexual jokes, spreading rumors about or rating other students as to sexual activity, sexual advances, displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures and written materials, sexual gestures, sexual touching...."
The American Association of University Women, based in Washington, D.C., heightened awareness of sexual harassment in schools when it released Hostile Hallways in 1993. The AAUW surveyed 1,632 students in grades 8 to 11, and 85 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment in school. Among the consequences of their experiences: not wanting to attend school, feeling embarrassed, wanting to change schools, getting lower grades and having difficulty paying attention in class.
But sometimes sexual harassment in schools can be hard to spot--and easy to miss. Of the three types of sexual harassment occurring in schools--employee-to-employee, teacher-to-student and student-to-student--the latter is most common. The Hostile Hallways survey found that of those students reporting harassment, only 25 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys were harassed by teachers or other school employees, making the majority of perpetrators their peers.
No more "boys will be boys"
"Today, everyone is past the `boys will be boys' state. They acknowledge that sexual harassment is something that can't just be swept under the rug and overlooked," says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington, Va.
A group of boys ogling a girl as she takes books out of her locker may be considered a childhood rite of passage in the eyes of older generations. But it's not OK today.
In Davis v. the Monroe County Board of Education, a federal appeals court in Atlanta, Ga., held that a school district can be held liable for the sexual harassment of one student by another. The parents of a 10-year-old girl are suing the 3,500-student district (near Macon) for $1 million in damages. (The case is pending review by the U.S. Supreme Court.) They say their daughter had been harassed continually over five months by a male classmate who fondled her and spoke to her in a sexually explicit way. Despite repeated complaints, the parents said, school officials did not move the girl from her assigned seat, which was right next to the accused boy's seat.
"Once picking on students was seen as just another part of growing up, but now we know it really affects kids and their feelings toward school," says Stephen Yurek, general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Alexandria, Va.
Schools must promote a safe, effective learning environment for all students, Yurek adds. If schools do not immediately remove graffiti from bathroom stalls that identify specific girls in a sexual context ("Jane X is a slut"), or if they allow students to hang nude pictures inside locker doors, they help create a "hostile environment." Just because there's no physical contact doesn't mean there's no sexual harassment.
On the books
In March 1997 the Office for Civil Rights (within the U.S. Department of Education) issued a 40-page document defining sexual harassment in schools as a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. According to the OCR, a school district must have a sexual harassment policy and a grievance procedure in place to qualify for Title IX federal funds. Hunter says there are still some administrators who are unaware of this. "There are too many cases of people hung out to dry for not having policies in place," he says.
An AASA instructional video recommends integrating sexual harassment awareness and prevention into the school curriculum, not just addressing it once a year. It suggests incorporating sexual harassment awareness into school assemblies, holding training seminars for staff, posting awareness posters, disseminating brochures and including a section in the student handbook about sexual harassment and the consequences for inappropriate behavior.
"To prevent harassment, every teacher and administrator should make sure there's awareness, that there's a policy in place, that it's enforced and that there's training about the policy so people understand what it is and what it means," says NEA Human and Civil Rights Manager Evelyn Ellington, who contributed to the book Flirting or Hurting?--A Teacher's Guide to Student-to-Student Sexual Harassment in Grades 6 to 12.
Ellington says younger students now are being alerted to what constitutes harassment in school so that bullying or teasing doesn't turn into unwanted sexual attention later on. In Fairfax County, a 150,000-student school district in suburban Virginia, school officials are implementing a five-lesson sexual harassment awareness programs at the elementary level. (Similar programs already are offered to middle and high school students.)
"It's been our experience that a lot of problems with kids stem from their not realizing the seriousness of their conduct and how it's affecting other people," says Doug Holmes, the district's student services director.
Rare but present
Most sexual harassment cases against teachers are brought by other teachers, says James Whattam, assistant general counsel for the Maryland Teachers' Association. And many of those cases never reach the courts because they are resolved within the school. But, as with other employment-related cases, teachers accused of sexual harassment by a colleague or student should seek professional legal advice immediately.
In a high-profile case this summer, Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, a 14-year-old girl alleged she was seduced by her 52-year-old teacher. The court decided the school district could not be held liable because the student did not report the situation to an administrator. Therefore Lago Vista ISD did not act "with `deliberate indifference' to a complaint," according to a July 1998 article in U.S. News & World Report.
If a teacher, administrator or any school official is approached by a student about a potential sexual harassment situation, the following swift and documented steps should be taken, based on materials available from the NEA:
* Listen to the student. But don't judge the truth of the student's allegations.
* Respond to student concerns. Assure the student that the school takes sexual harassment complaints seriously and will take measures to stop any harassment and prevent retaliation. Never tell a student that "boys will be boys" or "you need to learn how to handle these things."
* Explain the process for filing a complaint. Identify the person responsible for processing sexual harassment complaints, generally the Title IX coordinator, and offer to help the student contact that individual.
* Report the facts to the Title IX coordinator immediately. Document what the student told you and your observations of the student's demeanor. Submit your summary to the Title IX coordinator as soon as possible.
To learn more about the materials mentioned in this article, contact AASA at (800) 771-1162, the NEA at (800) 229-4200 or the AAUW Educational Foundation at (202) 728-7602 or email@example.com.
Monica Fuertes, who has a doctor of law degree from Georgetown University, is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Virginia.