María Aurora Yánez-Pérez, M.A.
Sexual harassment in schools, as in the workplace, has definitely taken its place in the public eye. Schools have received their wake-up call through highly publicized and costly litigation. Schools seem to be aware of sexual harassment, especially student-to-student sexual harassment, but they sometimes have difficulty addressing the issue because of its volatile nature. IDRA has published numerous articles on this topic before, two of which are referenced below. This article is part of the continuing efforts by IDRA to provide ongoing information on sexual harassment in schools.
Defining Sexual Harassment
The legal definition for sexual harassment is still evolving, but some helpful interpretations have emerged. Peggy Orenstein presents a definition that relates to school situations whether they be student to student, employee to student or vice versa. She says that sexual harassment consists of sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other inappropriate verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when any of the following occur:
- Submission is made, either explicitly or implicitly, a term or condition of an individual's employment or education.
- Submission or rejection by the harassee is used as the basis for academic or employment decisions affecting that individual.
- Such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's academic or professional performance, or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive employment or educational environment (Orenstein, 1994).
The two forms of sexual harassment that are identified within school settings are quid pro quo and hostile environment sexual harassment. Quid pro quo in its simplest form involves an exchange such as sexual favors for grades. The hostile environment form involves a prevailing course of conduct, action or behavior that is offensive to a "reasonable person" similarly situated.
Thus, sexual harassment is not based on the content or the intention of the harasser but in the perception of the person who is being influenced.
Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, employees are protected from discrimination due to race, national origin or gender. Recently, principles from Title VII have been applied to education and schools. Title IX specifically forbids sex discrimination in schools and other educational organizations that receive federal government funds. Its protection of students and employees includes the areas of recruitment, advertising, hiring, upgrading, tenure, firing, rates of pay, fringe benefits, leave for pregnancy and childbirth, and participation in employer-sponsored activities.
These definitions and laws are the framework that guide sexual harassment policies today. Now that we know what sexual harassment is and what guides many of the court actions taking place throughout the nation, it is important to go through the steps of how school districts can prevent sexual harassment.
School districts can begin at the most basic level by creating written policies that prohibit sexual harassment. A school district has to send a clear message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated. Definitions and examples of inappropriate behavior should be included to avoid any ambiguity or confusion. Once these clear rules have been established, schools should post them in locations accessible to students, faculty and staff. Title IX requires that the information be distributed annually to employees.
The policy should clarify that when a complaint is reported, everyone involved will be treated with anonymity. Also, every site within the school district needs to have a complaint manager at the district level who gathers and keeps all the information. This is vital when and if a complaint is brought forward.
A last fundamental step is to include specific language regarding sexual harassment in students' and employees' policy handbooks.
Staff members within the school must receive training to sensitize them to issues of harassment. Fundamentally, they must understand that only one type of relationship should exist between them and their students: a professional relationship. In addition to understanding the issue of sexual harassment, staff members must also take a strong stand against it. This is vital within schools because staff members are the students' role models and thus need to exhibit appropriate behavior.
Principals should conduct periodic "environmental scanning" to determine student, teacher and staff attitudes within their schools.
Schools need to provide information to students about what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Mary Joe McGrath states that many students who have received sensitivity training regarding sexual harassment in schools have changed. Once they understood that sexual harassment includes unwanted touching and degrading behaviors and language, they began to oppose those types of behaviors (1996).
Sensitizing students effectively will not discourage them from exploring relationships and understanding that relationships can be mutually satisfying if both parties want the attention. That is not the purpose. The purpose is to teach students that it is not "okay" to keep quiet when the behavior of one student makes another feel embarrassed, uncomfortable or threatened.
Finally, schools should have appropriate grievance procedures to ensure that students will be heard and believed. The procedures should provide both formal and informal opportunities. Schools can often avoid going through costly court procedures if appropriate action is taken during an informal investigation. Mary Larson suggests using the following questions to review grievance procedures:
- Does the grievance procedure provide an opportunity for informal consultation and, where appropriate, informal resolution before moving into formal procedures?
- Does the grievance procedure provide for impartial investigation that includes fact finding, careful review, due process and opportunity for appeal?
- Does the grievance procedure include an appropriate remedy based on the severity of the offense and institute corrective action where there is a finding of harassment? (1996).
Currently there is not a law that requires schools to provide training on sexual harassment. However, school districts that are found to have incidents of sexual harassment in their schools are viewed more harshly by the courts than are those schools who have had more extensive staff and student training. Thus, it behooves school districts to train everyone from school board members and superintendents to clerical staff and custodians.
The IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center - South Central Collaborative (SCC) provides various services to schools and districts for dealing with sexual harassment in public schools. These services include training in sexual harassment policies, creating a non-hostile environment and sexual harassment and the law. The Desegregation Assistance Center - SCC also provides assistance in selecting materials that are free of gender bias and in developing policies and procedures on sexual harassment. For more information, contact Bradley Scott, director of the Desegregation Assistance Center - SCC, at 210-444-1710.
Capitol Publications, Inc. School Law News (Alexandria, Va.: Capitol Publications, Inc., March 21, 1997), 25(6).
Larson, Marta. "Is Harassment a Problem in Your School?" Equity Coalition (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Program for Educational Opportunity, University of Michigan School of Education, Spring 1996).
McGrath, Mary Jo. Sexual Harassment Investigation Training Manual: Training for Administrators and Staff (Santa Barbara, Calif.: Mary JO McGrath, 1996).
Orenstein, P. School Girls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and the Confidence Gap (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1994).
Penny-Velázquez, Michaela. "Combating Students' Peer-to-Peer Sexual Harassment: Creating Gender Equity in Schools," IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1994).
Scott, B. "Administrator's Alert: Sexual Harassment is Everybody's Business," IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1996).
Thompson Publishing Group. Educator's Guide to Controlling Sexual Harassment (Washington, D.C.: Thompson Publishing Group, May 1997).
María Aurora Yánez-Pérez, is a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at
[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]