Sexual Harassment at School
Sexual harassment at school is a serious issue affecting many students across the country. It's crucial to understand how this problem is being addressed and what laws are in place to protect students. It is vital for parents, educators, and the community to know how to help victims.
This article provides an overview of the related laws. It also explores the difference between harassment and bullying. Lastly, it offers guidance for parents and schools regarding sexual harassment.
A Brief Overview of Title IX
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in education programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. This law applies to all public schools, including high schools and secondary schools. Under Title IX, educational institutions have a legal obligation to ensure equal access and opportunity for all students. This is so regardless of the student's gender, sexual orientation, or sexual identity.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is responsible for enforcing Title IX and other civil rights laws. If someone experiences conduct of a sexual nature that creates a hostile environment in an educational setting, they can file a complaint with the OCR. This can include incidents of sexual harassment, sexual violence, and sexual assault. The complainant can file a formal complaint through a complaint process. This usually involves completing a complaint form. School administrators and other staff members must follow specific grievance procedures to handle complaints of sexual harassment.
Quid pro quo is another form of sexual harassment. In these situations, something is given in return for sexual favors. This type of behavior can create a hostile environment in the classroom or during extracurricular activities. Gender discrimination, including sexual misconduct, is not just against federal law. It is also against the principles of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination promoted by our education system. This includes protecting the rights of non-binary, male, and female students alike.
Title IX was originally enacted to prevent publicly funded schools from engaging in discrimination based on sex. Many people know about Title IX because of its positive effects on the advancement of women's athletics. It also shows up in employment law. It protects employees from sex discrimination in hiring, tenure, salary, and promotion decisions. Since Davis, the Supreme Court has extended the scope of Title IX to protect students against student-to-student sexual harassment.
Landmark Case Summary: Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education
In the landmark case Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a school could be held liable for failing to stop student-on-student sexual harassment. This ruling clarified schools' responsibilities under Title IX. It emphasized that schools should address complaints seriously.
In this case, the plaintiff's 11-year-old daughter had always been an excellent student. She made good grades, was relatively active, and seemed like an overall happy child. Then, she began to complain about a boy harassing her. She told her parents that the boy made crude comments to her about wanting to get into bed with her. He would also rub up against her in the hallway. He touched her breasts and genital area and chased her. This didn't just happen all in one day. These types of behaviors were repeated day after day.
The girl made complaints to her teachers. The teachers dismissed her concerns and failed to even talk to the boy who harassed her. Her mother got involved, calling the teachers and the principal, to no avail. The principal did not investigate. Instead, he asked the mother why none of the other children had made complaints.
It wasn't until the mother had complained for three months that she was able to get her daughter's seat changed. This way, she and the boy were not sitting next to each other in class. But this little girl was not the only one ignored. When a group of other students shared their harassment complaints with a teacher, they were not even allowed to speak to the principal.
Perhaps the school teachers did not know what to do. After all, there was no training or protocol on how to handle sexual harassment at school. The school district did not have a policy guiding teachers on what to do in such cases. Eventually, the little girl became depressed. She dreaded going to school, feared going into the gym or bathroom at school, and refused to participate in school activities. Her once excellent grades dropped tremendously. She even wrote a suicide note.
The Implications of Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education
This case was pivotal in defining the responsibilities of schools to address sexual harassment between students. As a result of this case, a school district could be held liable for failing to stop harassment by one student of another. The Court held that the school's failure to respond to harassment amounted to discrimination on the basis of sex.
The Davis ruling significantly impacted educational institutions. It emphasized the need for schools to take sexual harassment complaints seriously. Schools must have procedures in place to address complaints. They must also respond promptly and reasonably to allegations of sexual harassment.
This case set a precedent, reinforcing the legal obligations of schools under Title IX to ensure a hostile-free environment. Davis guided schools in shaping their policies. It has been an essential reference in subsequent cases dealing with sexual harassment in educational settings.
Harassment vs. Bullying
Harassment and bullying may seem similar, but they are different. Sexual harassment refers to repetitive, unwanted sexual advances. A school district is liable for violating Title IX if it fails to take reasonable action against serious, long-term student-to-student sexual harassment that school employees knew about. The Supreme Court made this distinction to protect school districts from liability for typical schoolyard bullying. Occasional name-calling, pushing and shoving, and physical fights do not constitute a Title IX violation.
Instead, the Supreme Court protected students from continuous and offensive behavior interfering with the student's participation in their school lives. This can include things like:
- Daily aggressive sexual remarks
- Behavior or threats that prevent students from using a part of the school building
- A pattern of repeated threats, abusive touching, or chasing
- Abusive harassment of students identified as gay, regardless of whether they actually are
The Supreme Court has interpreted Title IX such that it is easy for school districts to stay out of trouble. As long as the school complies with the law by making reasonable efforts to stop the harassment after a complaint is made, the school is probably not liable—even if the harassment continues.
Tips for Parents of Sexually Harassed Kids
If you think your child is experiencing sexual harassment at school, you should first ask them for information. Get as many details as possible: who is involved, what they are doing, when and how often, and where. Ask if your child has told any authority figure and what that figure did or said. Be sure to get a copy of the school's sexual harassment policy. Find out if the school faculty is familiar with the policy. Talk to school administrators or the Title IX coordinator.
If you are not taken seriously or no action is taken, follow the school's formal complaint process. Complete a written report of everything that has happened, including what the particular faculty member did or did not do. Emphasize the fact that sexual harassment is interfering with your student's schoolwork. Close the report with a demand for prompt and corrective action.
Dear Principal Smith,
My daughter, Sierra, is in Mr. Taylor's 5th-grade class. She has expressed to me that she is suffering from sexual harassment at school. Apparently, another student in her class has been harassing her with sexually inappropriate conduct. I would rather wait and tell you his name in private. The specific acts of harassment he has engaged in include:
- Threatening to rape her
- Chasing her down hallways
- Spying on her in the bathroom
- Sending her sexually obscene notes
- Telling her friends that he wants to "prong" her
This extremely inappropriate conduct began in September of this year. Sierra has repeatedly insisted that the boy stop and has even, numerous times, told Mr. Taylor, who does nothing. The student even sits next to Sierra in class, and Mr. Taylor refuses to allow Sierra to move seats.
This sexual harassment at school has seriously affected my daughter's ability to perform. She never wants to go to school or participate in sports or music. As you may know, she has been on the honor roll consistently since the first grade. Her grades have slipped to a "C" average. Most upsettingly, she has fallen into a sad and moody state. I am deeply concerned for her.
I am leaving this note to notify you that I would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience. I would like to discuss what disciplinary action you plan to take to alleviate the harassment. I can be reached on my cell phone at XXX-XXXX.
What To Do if the Principal Does Nothing
If you still don't get anywhere, start moving up the ladder. Go to the school superintendent. Address this the same way you approached your principal and write it all down in a letter. But talk to the superintendent directly. Insist that the superintendent take immediate action to alleviate the problem.
If that still gets you nowhere, go to the school board. You may want to bring members of the PTA with you to emphasize the safety concern for all of the children. Keep in mind the nature of a sexual harassment claim against a child. Be sensitive to that—you don't want to appear as though you are attacking or defaming the child. Informing personnel of the problem's details is enough. You can leave names out of it until it is asked of you.
Other personnel appropriate to contact include:
- The state board of education
- Your local government representative
- The local newspaper
Remember, if you contact the paper, leave names out in order to avoid a defamation suit.
How Schools Should Approach Sexual Harassment
It is the responsibility of every school receiving federal funds to appoint a Title IX coordinator. This person ensures that the school follows Title IX regulations and handles allegations of sexual harassment.
Schools should compose and print a handbook that includes:
- A clear sexual harassment at school policy
- Rules and remedies
- What kinds of behaviors constitute sexual harassment
- A statement to students that sexual harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated
- A statement that will help kids understand what to do if they suffer from sexual harassment at school
If your child's school does not have a sexual harassment policy, insist that they draft one. You could even offer to get a group of parents, teachers, and students together to form the policy. Once drafted, the school needs to make a commitment to continuously educating the faculty and students on the policy. This helps ensure enforcement and that everyone understands what sexual harassment is and is not.
Getting Legal Help With a Sexual Harassment Incident
Sexual harassment in schools is a grave issue. Unfortunately, it affects many students. Thanks to laws like Title IX, schools have a clear guide to ensure students have a safe and respectful learning environment. If anyone experiences issues, they can follow the complaint process with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR). By working together, students, parents, and staff members can build an environment free from sexual harassment and any form of gender discrimination.
If a student or their family believes they have been a victim of sexual harassment, sexual violence, or other conduct of a sexual nature at school, they might decide to seek legal help. They can contact their school's Title IX coordinator. This person is trained to handle allegations of sexual harassment and guide you through the school's formal complaint and grievance procedures.
A lawyer concentrating in civil rights and education can help students and families in these cases. They can provide advice on how to navigate the legal system. They can also help with the filing of a discrimination complaint with the OCR.
You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help
Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.