• by Bradley Scott, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1996 •
It was in October 1995 that the U.S. District Court for Western Missouri ruled that a school district has a duty to take affirmative action to prevent sexual harassment of students by other students under Title IX. The court ruled that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act governing Equal Employment Opportunity and the standards established along with it regarding “hostile environment” should be used to determine whether or not there was intentional discrimination under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 in matters of student-to-student sexual harassment. In such cases, if a student can show that the district or campus administrator knew about the hostile environment and took insufficient remedial action to correct the matter, he or she can be held liable, taken to court and possibly made to pay damages.
School districts throughout the region are becoming increasingly concerned about their responsibilities under the law regarding sexual harassment. Are they liable to protect students against sexual harassment? Can they be sued? Will they have to pay damages if it is found that they failed to take corrective action where they had knowledge that a hostile environment existed? Can principals be sued? Should districts take out liability insurance for campus administrators? Should campus administrators bear the burden of damages as a part of the responsibility they take on when they assume principalships? These and many more questions are arising from districts throughout IDRA’s Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative (DAC-SCC) service area.
IDRA has provided assistance to school districts in developing comprehensive approaches to raise awareness about peer-to-peer sexual harassment (see Penny-Velázquez, 1995). In January of this year, IDRA’s DAC-SCC conducted three days of staff development for a school district on sexual harassment. The sessions were designed to help administrators, particularly principals, to understand their responsibilities under the law regarding sexual harassment. We provided training to more than 120 principals, assistant principals and key administrative personnel on a wide range of subjects under the topic.
For this, we used a three-part training series, Sexual Harassment: Minimize the Risk, developed by the law offices of Mary Jo McGrath as a basis for conducting the training (1993). The session was intended to raise the awareness of administrators to their responsibilities under the Civil Rights Act, 1964, Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, the Fourteenth Amendment of the US Constitution and applicable litigation.
The session provided the participants with definitions of sexual harassment, information on the two types of sexual harassment (quid pro quo and hostile environment), the legislation that governs sexual harassment, a discussion and review of liability and responsibility under the law, procedures for identifying whether or not a hostile environment exists, steps for correcting a hostile environment, procedures for conducting sexual harassment investigations at the campus level, and procedures for creating a report of findings.
It was surprising to many administrators that principals may be held liable if a student can prove the following:
- The school official received notice of a pattern of improper acts committed by the teacher or employee,
- The school official demonstrated deliberate indifference to or tacit authorization of the offensive acts,
- The school official failed to take sufficient remedial action, and
- Such failure proximately caused injury to the student (McGrath, 1993).
The session provided the administrators with school-based examples and activities to help them practice identifying and responding to sexual harassment charges between students, between staff and students, and between employees. The training videos, activities and handouts equipped the administrators with practical tools they could implement immediately to ensure that they minimized the risk of maintaining a sexually hostile environment on their campuses.
Because the area of sexual harassment is a quickly changing and evolving area, due to the extensive litigation that is currently taking place in the courts, it was clear to the administrators that they need a way to ensure they are protecting the civil rights of students on their campuses and to protect themselves from liability. Mary JO McGrath offers the following five recommendations:
- Have written policies that prohibit harassment and clearly outline a responsive, prompt complaint procedure.
- Provide on-going education for students and staff that goes beyond perfunctory treatment of sexual harassment and that sensitizes employees and students to problems of harassment.
- Conduct prompt, thorough investigations of claims without retaliation toward the complaintant(s).
- Promptly report matters of suspected child abuse.
- Establish and implement appropriate consequences if allegations of harassment are substantiated.
Responding to sexual harassment is everybody’s business. Students, staffs, administrators and parents all have a part to play. If schools are going to protect the rights of students regarding sexual harassment and the law, they must carry out their duties to train, to investigate, to remedy and to monitor. Anything short of that is criminal.
The IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative provides various services to schools and districts on dealing with sexual harassment in public schools. These include training on sexual harassment, on creating a non-hostile environment, and on sexual harassment and the law as well as assistance in selecting materials that are free from gender bias and in developing policies and procedures on sexual harassment. For more information contact Bradley Scott, MA, director of the IDRA DAC-SCC, at 210/684-8180.
McGrath, Mary JOSexual Harassment: Minimize the Risk (Santa Barbara, California: McGrath Systems, Inc., 1993).
Penny-Velázquez, Michaela. “Preventing Sexual Harassment in Schools: A Pro-active Agenda,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1995).
Phelps, Mary-Ellen (Ed.). “Student Harassment Claims Put Schools in the Middle,” School Law News (1996) Vol. 23, No. 1, pp.7-8.
Thompson Publishing Group. Educator’s Guide to Controlling Sexual Harassment (Thompson Publishing Group, 1996) Vol. 3, No. 4, pp. 1-2.
Bradley Scott, MA, is the director of IDRA’s Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]