Frequently Asked Questions: What Is Sexual Harassment?
Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed October 03, 2023
Title IX prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational program or activity. Sexual harassment is a form of prohibited sex discrimination. The following answers some of the most frequently asked questions about sexual harassment. See FindLaw's Discrimination at School section to find out more information.
Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 protects all students from gender-based discrimination. Students in any educational institution that receives federal financial assistance are protected. These protections extend to both public schools and private institutions. Title IX also requires schools to provide equal access without discrimination based on sex to all aspects of education. This includes school athletics and extracurricular activities.
This FAQ addresses sexual harassment in schools and provides knowledge and support on these important issues, although it does not give legal advice on any particular set of facts. If you feel you've been sexually harassed consider consulting an attorney.
What is sexual harassment?
Sexual harassment happens when someone gives unwanted sexual attention to someone else. It also happens when someone makes sexual comments or actions that make others feel uncomfortable or threatened. This conduct ranges from anything from sexual violence or assault to rude comments about someone's gender identity.
There are two types of sexual harassment. In quid pro quo harassment, a school employee conditions a student's participation in a program or activity or bases an education-related decision on the student's submission to requests for sexual favors or other verbal, non-verbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Sexual harassment, especially when it persists, can interfere with learning. If these actions are severe or happen frequently, they can prevent a student from participating in school activities. This creates what is known as a "hostile environment."
In a school setting, who are the potential harassers?
In a school setting, anyone could be a harasser — a fellow student, school staff, school administrators, or even a third party. Third parties would include people who are not employees or students at the school but may be legitimately permitted on the school premises. Harassment can occur anywhere, whether within school activities, locker rooms, social media, or classrooms. The key is that it is unwanted and interferes with a student's equal access to education.
How does federal law protect students against sexual harassment?
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a federal law, provides protections against sexual harassment. This law applies to all educational institutions which receive federal funding. It protects students from sexual harassment and any form of discrimination on the basis of sex.
Is it sexual harassment if a teacher touches a student?
Yes. If a teacher or staff member touches a student inappropriately or without consent, it can be considered sexual harassment. The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) emphasizes that any unwanted physical contact that is sexual can constitute sexual harassment. Sexual harassment does not include nonsexual touching or other nonsexual conduct.
For example, an elementary school teacher could give a consoling hug to a child who scraped their elbow. This is not considered sexual harassment. Similarly, a volleyball coach could hug a team member who scored the winning point. However, in some circumstances, nonsexual conduct may rise to sexual harassment. For example, consider a volleyball coach hugging a player in inappropriate circumstances. This action could create a hostile environment.
Are both male and female students protected from being sexually harassed?
Yes. Title IX protects all students, regardless of gender, from sexual harassment. This protection extends to all school environments and school-sponsored events.
Are gay and lesbian students protected?
Yes. Title IX also protects students of all sexual orientations, including gay and lesbian students. The U.S. Department of Education has clarified that this protection extends to all students. This protection is afforded regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Are transgender students and gender nonconforming students protected under Title IX?
Yes. Title IX's protections also extend to transgender students. All students have the right to learn in an environment free from sex-based discriminatory harassment. This is regardless of their gender identity. Schools must respect students' pronouns and gender identities. They must also ensure equal access to all aspects of school life. This includes access to locker rooms and physical education, for example.
Is discrimination based on national origin also considered harassment?
Yes. Discrimination based on national origin is a form of harassment. It is prohibited by federal law. This is specifically outlawed under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This law protects students from discrimination based on race or color. It also protects students based on national origin.
Is a school liable for sexual harassment by its employees?
Yes. Under Title IX, a school can be held liable for sexual harassment perpetrated by its employees. If the school is aware of the harassment and fails to take immediate and appropriate action, it can be liable.
A school will always be liable for quid pro quo harassment if the harasser is a school employee in a position of authority. A school's liability for hostile environment sexual harassment depends on whether the harassment is severe or pervasive. It also depends on whether the employee appeared to be acting on behalf of the school.
Is a school liable if a student sexually harasses another student?
Yes. Schools can be held responsible if they know about and ignore sexual harassment among students. All school districts have a responsibility to provide a safe, nondiscriminatory environment. This responsibility can be passed along under Title IX.
How do state laws complement federal laws in protecting students from sexual harassment?
Many state laws also prohibit sexual harassment in schools. They work in tandem with federal laws to ensure students' protection. The specificities of state laws can vary, but they must meet or exceed the protections provided by federal laws like Title IX.
What role does the U.S. Department of Justice play in enforcing Title IX?
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is crucial in enforcing Title IX and other federal civil rights laws. The DOJ works to uphold the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals. This includes students. The DOJ takes action when these rights are violated.
What is the Rehabilitation Act, and how does it relate to sexual harassment?
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination based on disability. This is prohibited in programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance. Section 504 does not directly address sexual harassment. Still, it does contribute to creating a nondiscriminatory and inclusive environment.
What should a student do if they think they are being harassed?
Students who believe they are experiencing harassment should report the issue to a trusted school official. They should do this as soon as possible. The trusted person can be a Title IX coordinator or school administrator. The student should also keep a record of each incident. This can include any messages or posts on social media. If the harassment persists, the student or their parents can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's OCR.
Does the student's name have to be disclosed to the harasser?
No. The school should keep the complainant's identity confidential as much as possible. Schools are required to balance the need for confidentiality with their obligation to provide a safe place for students. A student can request that their name not be disclosed. A student can also request that nothing be done about the harassment. The student should be informed that the student's request might limit the school's ability to respond to the complaint.
How can schools provide academic support to victims of sexual harassment?
Under Title IX, schools must support students affected by sexual harassment, which includes academic support. This can mean adjusting a student's schedule or providing tutoring or consulting. The school must provide any and all accommodations allowing students to continue their education. The student is entitled to an education without fear or intimidation.
How is sexual harassment addressed in school healthcare settings?
Title IX also governs healthcare settings in schools. If a student experiences sexual harassment, it should be reported and addressed immediately. Follow the same procedures listed above.
How can I report a Title IX violation?
If you believe your or someone else's rights under Title IX have been violated, you can file a complaint. If the school does not adequately address the complaint, you can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
What is the role of the Title IX coordinator in addressing sexual harassment?
A Title IX coordinator's role is to ensure the school complies with Title IX. This Coordinator oversees the school's response to sexual harassment reports. They also provide information about the process and resources to those involved. Every school should provide the contact information of its Title IX coordinator to the school community.
Remember, every student deserves a safe and inclusive educational environment. Title IX is intended to uphold this right and ensure equal access to all aspects of education. Students have the right to be free from sexual harassment and discrimination.
What should a parent do if the school does not respond to the student's complaint?
If a school fails to respond appropriately to a complaint, parents can contact the OCR and file a complaint. Also, parents may seek legal advice and take action under federal civil rights laws.
Talk to an education attorney today if you have more questions about harassment at school.
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