• by Michaela Penny-Velázquez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • March 1995
Sexual harassment is a problem that occurs in schools throughout the nation, whether they be urban or rural, rich or poor, public or private, secondary or elementary. The bad news is that sexual harassment may be happening in your district on a daily basis. It may be happening in the halls, in the classrooms, in the cafeteria, on the playground, or in all the places that students congregate and where adults are present. Sexual harassment is not a new thing. It has been happening for years, only we didn’t label it “sexual harassment.” We have ignored it, denied it, and not held ourselves accountable for its impact on students and their opportunity to receive an education in a safe environment, free of hostility. In fact, we have not addressed it as a problem in schools until recently.
With court decisions involving sexual harassment complaints against school districts concerning students and adult staff members and, now, students to students, school districts are paying closer attention to developing policies and procedures prohibiting sexual harassment in the educational environment. It is not enough however, to create policies without staff and students being aware of such policies and their implications. The fact remains, sexual harassment is illegal both in the workplace and in the educational environment. Students who experience sexual harassment in schools are being denied equal educational opportunity based on Title IX of the Educational Amendments (Penny-Velázquez, 1994).
Recent national survey data contained in the American Association of University Women (AAUW) report, Hostile Hallways, reveal that over 81 percent of students (male and female) report having experienced sexual harassment in the schools (1993). Contrary to what we might have thought, the majority of students experience sexual harassment from their peers and not from adults.
Over the course of the last two years, in training sessions with hundreds of administrators, teachers and other staff members, I have often asked participants if they know what the policies and procedures are for their school district regarding sexual harassment and what to do if they or students are being sexually harassed. Overwhelmingly, no hands are raised. Most participants do not even know there are laws that protect students and staff from sexual harassment and that sexual harassment is illegal in the educational environment. Clearly, if the adults in the schools do not even realize that policies exist to prohibit sexual harassment, how can we expect students to know about sexual harassment and its prohibitions?
The good news is that sexual harassment can be prevented. By teaching students to respect one another and to have healthy relationships between the sexes and within the sexes, students can become more sensitive to one another and realize that harassment in and of itself is demoralizing and degrading. School districts can best demonstrate this to students by taking a stand and not tolerating harassment in any form. This can be accomplished through awareness training about sex discrimination and bias and its effects on people and through teaching skills for empowering students to stand up for themselves when they experience harassment, whether it be sexual, racial or religious harassment.
The remainder of this article describes a comprehensive approach that one Texas school district was willing to implement in its effort to take a pro-active stand against sexual harassment in the schools. Few districts have embarked on such a comprehensive approach that will include training of more than 24,000 staff and students on the prevention of sexual harassment.
One District’s Approach to Preventing Sexual Harassment
Last November, the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) received a request for training and technical assistance from a district in Texas to provide guidance in developing a comprehensive approach for the entire district to raise awareness about peer-to-peer sexual harassment. The request came in response to a resolution with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in which the district was to provide training to all students about the following: (1) what is sexual harassment; (2) what are the prohibitions of sexual harassment; and (3) what can students do if they are being sexually harassed. The impetus for this resolution with the OCR originated from a complaint to OCR from one of the district’s families. The district was found to be in compliance with Title IX but was asked to provide OCR with a detailed implementation plan within a specified timeframe to include training of all students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade on the prevention of sexual harassment.
In efforts to comply with the Office for Civil Rights’ resolution, the district received focused educational assistance in the development of a training plan through the IDRA Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative (DAC-SCC) which provides training and technical assistance to school districts within a five-state area on issues related to race, national origin and gender equity. What started out as an insurmountable challenge to the district actually became an opportunity to create a district-wide awareness of the issue of peer-to-peer sexual harassment and how to prevent sexual harassment.
The first step included IDRA’s assistance in the identification of suitable resources the district could use with students in the prevention of sexual harassment. A list of recommended resources including elementary and secondary curricula and commercial videotapes was forwarded to district staff.
The second step of the process involved forming teams of individuals at the district level to take on planning and guiding the training effort in consultation with IDRA’s gender equity coordinator. At the initial meeting, a group of district representatives discussed the issues related to peer-to-peer sexual harassment, including a look at what national research and survey data say about the prevalence of peer-to-peer sexual harassment in our schools. They recommended action steps to prevent sexual harassment. At this meeting a draft of a proposed plan that was initially developed by the staff development coordinator and IDRA’s gender equity coordinator was presented, reviewed and revised based on group feedback.
An Eight-Step Approach
The following comprehensive approach was outlined.
1. Convene a meeting with a core group of individuals including the district’s Title IX coordinator and designees, selected campus principals, representatives from the district’s discipline committee, and selected counselors and nurses. The meeting was designed to review all documents containing any reference to sexual harassment. These included district policies, procedures and sanctions contained in employee and student handbooks as well as any reference to parents. The purpose of the meeting was to review these documents for inclusion of clearly stated policies and procedures regarding sexual harassment and to note any significant discrepancies or omissions.
2. Provide an overview of peer-to-peer sexual harassment to principals at each of the elementary and secondary campuses in order to: (a) raise their awareness about the prevalence of sexual harassment among students and the legal issues under Title IX; (b) review the proposed changes and modifications to the district’s policies, procedures and sanctions resulting from the first committee meeting; (c) discuss the training and implementation plan for staff and students; and (d) provide input regarding letters of notification to parents about the upcoming awareness training for students.
3. Provide a community awareness meeting for community representatives to learn about the district’s plan to prevent sexual harassment in the schools. The awareness session included an overview of what the research says about sexual harassment among students, a presentation of curricula and lessons for elementary and secondary students regarding sexual harassment, and an opportunity for questions and answers.
4. Create an introductory videotape for secondary students on: (a) what is sexual harassment; (b) what behaviors constitute sexual harassment; (c) what are the prohibitions against sexual harassment; and (d) what you can do if you are being sexually harassed. The videotape would be produced by the district’s audio-visual department and be broadcast throughout the district’s secondary campuses.
5. Provide four days of training to selected representatives from each of the district’s elementary and secondary campuses using a trainer of trainers approach. The representatives would then be responsible for training staff at their respective campuses and in turn provide the awareness sessions for students. The teams consisted of campus principals and selected counselors, teachers and nurses.
The content of the trainer of trainers sessions focused on the following: (a) an overview of the problem of sexual harassment among peers; (b) what the survey research data say about student-to-student sexual harassment; (c) curricula and supplementary resources for teaching students appropriate behaviors; (d) policies, procedures and sanctions; and (e) demonstrations of lessons for students.
Each campus team would then be responsible for developing its own training implementation plan based on the selected materials and resources. A team of elementary counselors developed an introductory lesson appropriate for early primary and upper elementary grades that was to be demonstrated at each of the training sessions. The elementary campuses elected to train a team of nurses and counselors to conduct the awareness sessions with elementary students.
6. Provide a session for vice principals and facilitators with an overview of peer-to-peer sexual harassment, policies, procedures and sanctions. Since many of the vice principals would be responsible for implementing the sanctions, an opportunity for their input was included in the training plan.
7. Include a training and planning meeting of counselors, nurses and social workers from throughout the district, in anticipation of possible disclosures and complaints of sexual harassment and other sexual abuse issues including dating violence and incest. The purpose of the training was to provide an overview to all support staff who had not attended any of the previous campus level training, to plan efforts to provide support to students who have been targets of sexual harassment or other forms of sexual abuse and to provide counseling or other related support to students doing the harassment.
8. Include follow-up activities by IDRA’s gender equity coordinator including two days of observations and feedback of the training awareness sessions and input on the campus training implementation.
The Impact So Far
The above action plan was implemented over the course of three weeks with the exception of the follow-up activities that are scheduled for a later date. The training involved hundreds of school staff members from each of the district’s campuses and will ultimately reach more than 24,000 individuals within the district. All employees and all students received awareness training in the prevention of sexual harassment by March 1995. The district plans to integrate sexual harassment prevention curricula at both the elementary and secondary levels for the following school year.
One elementary school held a parental involvement meeting with 65 parents to explain to parents their attempts to teach the children to treat each other with respect and dignity. Some comments were “This is excellent,” and “Are you going to teach the rest of the grades these courses? I have three more children in other grades.”
A counselor from another elementary school stated:
An educated child is an empowered child. By teaching our elementary-aged students pre-kindergarten through fifth about sexual harassment – i.e. what it is, what the law says about it, and how to protect themselves from unwanted, unwelcome sexual advances – they become key players in creating a safe school. And with our staff and parents also informed on this important issue we have forged a partnership who’s goal is a non-hostile, positive learning environment.
Clearly, the action steps outlined above demonstrate a pro-active stand and a commitment to prevent sexual harassment in the district’s schools. While the direct impact of training and awareness sessions is still not evident, the district has taken positive steps forward in the prevention of sexual harassment among peers and staff.
American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation. Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America’s Schools,” (AAUW, June 1993).
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), pp. 10-12.
Michaela Velázquez is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development.
[©1995, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 1995 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.]