• by Maria Aurora Yañez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 1998 • 

Schools in our nation were doing a poor job of confronting sexual harassment. Recognizing this, Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Twenty-five years later, the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE) assessed the impact of Title IX on gender discrimination. The resulting report, Title IX at 25: Report Card on Gender Equity, determines how successful girls and women have been in achieving access to higher education and athletics, treatment of pregnant and parenting students, and protection from and legal recourse to sexual harassment, among other things.

NCWGE contends that sexual harassment continues to be a major obstacle to girls and women in part because of its historical background:

There are no benchmark data from the early 1970s regarding sexual harassment; however, the effort to combat and eradicate this barrier reaches back to just a few years after Title IX’s enactment. In 1977, one year after the first district court decision recognizing sexual harassment in the workplace, a district court, in Alexander vs. Yale University, identified such misconduct in colleges as a violation of Title IX…Three years later, in 1980, the National Advisory Council of Women’s Educational Programs recommended that OCR [Office for Civil Rights] issue a federal policy on sexual harassment so that schools and colleges would understand their responsibility to stop or prevent sexual harassment (NCWGE, 1997).

In 1997, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued its Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties. It specifically states that sexual harassment is prohibited by Title IX. Furthermore, the guide clarifies that it applies to all students in elementary, middle or junior high, and high school levels. It also provides information about the types of actions that constitute sexual harassment and the responsibility adults have in eliminating it.

Furthermore, OCR states it “has long recognized that sexual harassment of students by school employees, other students and third parties is covered by Title IX.” Its policy and practice is consistent with Congress’ goal in enacting Title IX to eliminate sex-based discrimination in federally assisted education programs. It is also consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court precedent and well-established legal principles that have developed as a result of Title IX and related anti-discrimination provisions of Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Impact of Sexual Harassment on Students

According to the American Association of University Women’s (AAUW) study, Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America’s Schools, the impact of sexual harassment in schools is expansive (1993). Most girls (85 percent) and 76 percent of boys have been harassed in school. AAUW identified two types of impact on students: educational and emotional. The educational impact includes students no longer wanting to attend school, staying home from school or cutting a class. Students may have a lower participation in class and have more difficulty paying attention. They may also have lower academic performance (particularly in the class where the harassment is occurring) and difficulty in studying. Some students in the study thought about changing schools, and some actually did so.

The emotional impact on students is just as detrimental because students are embarrassed about receiving the unwanted attention. They begin to feel self-conscious, and their self-esteem decreases. Students who experience harassment feel more frightened at school and are less confident about establishing positive, romantic relationships. They also experience confusion about their identities and feel less popular.

The AAUW report states, “While nearly half the students (48 percent) say they were ‘very upset’ or ‘somewhat upset,’ an alarming 70 percent of girls responded this way, compared with only 24 percent of boys.” Thus, victims of harassment can be trapped in a lonely, frightening place.

Legislation and Recent Litigation

Since this landmark study, school districts have become more aware of their liability because of litigation throughout the country. In Franklin vs. Gwinnett County Public Schools, the court found in 1997 that students can collect financial damages for teacher-to-student harassment. Cannon vs. University of Chicago in 1997 allowed students to be compensated for abuse if the school knew or should have known about the abuse or if teachers used their authority to sexually harass students (Thompson Publishing Group, 1998).

However, recent rulings have changed the legal landscape. In 1998, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in the Gebser vs. Lago Vista Independent School District case. The opinion states:

Previously, many courts found schools liable for teacher-student harassment when officials were unaware of it, reasoning that teachers had used their school-provided authority to manipulate students into having sexual relationships and that schools should pay for that misuse of authority. That argument, however, will no longer be valid (Thompson Publishing Group, 1998).

Organizations across the nation expressed concern that the ruling “effectively bars access to the legal system for students and their families for their schools failure to remedy sexual harassment” (Thompson Publishing Group, 1998).

Although this court ruling was favorable to school districts for teacher-to-student harassment, districts should not interpret this as a reason to stop addressing the subject or training administrators, teachers, students and parents (Yánez-Pérez, 1997).

IDRA operates the Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative for Equity (SCCE), funded under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to serve school districts in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The center provides information, technical assistance and training in sex, race and national origin desegregation to eligible local education agencies requesting assistance within the five-state region. Sex desegregation assistance enables local education agencies to recognize specific forms of gender discrimination and develop districtwide needs assessment procedures in the area of sex equity. The center also helps agencies select or adapt materials to make schools free of gender bias and provides training on the uses of those materials. Several districts have pro-actively established policies to prevent sex harassment and have set up procedures and provided training to district personnel to respond appropriately when harassment occurs (Scott, 1996).

As a nation, it behooves us to address this form of abuse in school because of the emotional and educational toll it has taken on a large number of students. Hopefully, when the 50th anniversary of Title IX approaches, drastic inroads will have been made in eradicating sexual harassment in schools.


American Association of University Women (AAUW). Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America’s Schools (Washington, D.C.: AAUW, June 1993).

National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE). Title IX at 25: Report Card on Gender Equity (Washington, DC: NCWGE, 1997).

Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties (62 Federal Register 12034, March 13, 1997).

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, DC: Thompson Publishing Group, August 1998) Vol. 5 No. 11.

Yánez-Pérez, MA “Sexual Harassment Policies and Schools,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, August 1997).

María Aurora Yánez, MA, is a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be sent to her via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November – December 1998 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.]