The Desegregation Assistance Center – South Central Collaborative (DAC-SCC) has received many inquiries about sexual harassment in schools among students, between staff and students, and among staff. Sexual harassment in the work or school setting is illegal. Many questions abound about what to do when it occurs, what the legal responsibilities of schools are, and what students should do when they find themselves victims of it. As a way of continuing to help to provide clarity on the issue, the following article is reprinted from a pamphlet that is readily available from the Office for Civil Rights and that answers some commonly asked questions. School districts needing assistance with responding to sexual harassment should feel free to use this information to begin to address local concerns and should not hesitate to request IDRA DAC-SCC technical assistance and training services to address such matters.

In matters of sexual harassment and discrimination, an ounce of prevention is truly worth a pound of cure. District personnel who take a pro-active posture about these issues can save themselves time, energy and even money. More importantly, in being proactive, they position themselves to be ready to respond appropriately when, and if, a problem does arise. They also position themselves to better ensure the protection of the civil rights of children in schools. The following is reprinted from the brochure, “Sexual Harassment: It’s Not Academic,” by the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (August 1984).

Sexual harassment of students is a real and increasingly visible problem of serious consequence in education. A sexual harassment experience can affect all aspects of a student’s life: it can threaten a student’s emotional well-being, impair academic progress and even inhibit the attainment of career goals.

Most sexual harassment incidents involve a male harasser and a female victim, although there have been several reported cases involving female harassers and male victims as well as same-sex harassment. Other forms of discrimination, such as that based on race, may be combined with an incident of sexual harassment and further compound the severity of its effect and the difficulty of its resolution. Whatever the circumstances, academic institutions must address the problem in order to ensure all students a just and equal learning opportunity.

Questions and Answers about Sexual Harassment of Students

Question: What is an institution’s legal responsibility to respond to allegations of sexual harassment?

Answer: The responsibility is the same as it would be for any other sex discrimination complaint filed under Title IX. An institution can either utilize its general grievance procedure, required by Section 106.8 of the Title IX regulation, or develop and implement special procedures for handling sexual harassment allegations. Given the especially sensitive nature of this form of sex discrimination, some institutions have opted for the latter course of action and/or have instituted specific training in handling these cases.

Question: What can a student who is confronted by sexual harassment do?

Answer: There are many courses of action that a student can take in response to a sexual harassment experience. They include seeking advice informally, requesting third-party intervention, filing a formal complaint. For example, a student can do one or more of the following:

  • Tell the harasser (in person or by letter and when it is reasonably certain that such action will not jeopardize the student’s personal safety, academic status or professional future) that the behavior is neither humorous nor welcome and should cease immediately.
  • Seek support from a friend, colleague or counselor.
  • Keep a written record, documenting, as precisely as possible, what happened, when it took place, the names of witnesses, if any, the student’s response, and any other information that may be helpful later.
  • Find out whether other students and/or employees have also been harassed and whether they could offer corroborating testimony.
  • Seek advice on how to deal with the situation from a supportive and knowledgeable person.
  • Find out what the campus grievance process is and discuss the options with an advisor and/or friend.
  • File a complaint with the institution and/or with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

Question: How does the grievance process work?

Answer: There are many types of grievance procedures. Thus, it is difficult to describe the specific steps that would occur if a student decided to take action following a sexual harassment experience.

An exemplary procedure would provide the student with a variety of sources of initial, confidential and informal consultation concerning the incident(s), without committing the individual to the formal act of filing a complaint with its required subsequent investigation and resolution. Following informal consultation, a student could then decide whether to:

  • do nothing (rarely recommended);
  • take personal action (such as a letter to the harasser);
  • request informal third-party mediation; or
  • file a grievance which initiates formal investigation and resolution of a complaint.

Title IX mandates that all such complaints be investigated and resolved in a “prompt and equitable” manner. In some procedures, a single individual conducts the investigation; in others, it is accomplished by committee.

Investigating sexual harassment complaints often requires inquiries into interpersonal relations and may also involve professional ethics, behavior and judgement. Awareness of and sensitivity to the potentially negative effect on the lives and careers of both parties involved is of great importance in handling an investigation. While it is impossible to guarantee both parties’ protection against potential embarrassment or reprisal, efforts should be made to do so. Where there is evidence to substantiate a charge of sexual harassment, the institution must take immediate action to stop and prevent further harassment, as well as initiate appropriate remedial measures.

Question: How does a student file an OCR complaint?

Answer: The OCR complaint procedure is initiated by a letter to the OCR regional office serving the Department of Education administrative region where the school is located. The letter should include the name, address and daytime telephone number of the student and provide the date(s) of, and sufficient information about, the alleged incident(s) so that OCR can understand the nature of the complaint.

The complaint should be filed within 180 days from the last date of the alleged discrimination, unless the time for filing is extended by the responsible department official or designee. As a policy, OCR does not reveal the names or other identifying information about an individual unless it is necessary for the completion of an investigation or for enforcement activities against an institution that violates the law. OCR never reveals to an institution under investigation the identity of the person who filed the complaint, unless the person first gives OCR written consent to do so.

A student is not required by law to utilize the institutional grievance procedure before filing a complaint with OCR. However, in some institutions, filing a complaint with OCR precludes any further use of the institutional grievance procedures. Thus, a student does need to know what, if any, impact this action will have on utilizing or continuing the institutional grievance process.

Question: Why should a student report a sexual harassment experience?

Answer: The impact of sexual harassment on a student’s educational progress and/or attainment of future goals can be significant and should not be underestimated. As a result of a sexual harassment experience, a student may, for example:

  • receive an undeserved grade in a critical course;
  • have to seek a new academic advisor;
  • find it necessary to choose a new thesis topic;
  • drop out of a chosen field of study;
  • transfer to another school;
  • be unable to obtain customary job referrals and references; and
  • experience adverse emotional effects.

Harassing behavior, if ignored or not reported, is likely to continue and become worse rather than “go away.” In addition, unless a sexual harassment experience is reported, the institution cannot take remedial action.

Question: What is the best way for an institution to deal with sexual harassment?

Answer: The Title IX regulation requires institutions to adopt and publish grievance procedures that provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of sex discrimination complaints. To comply with the requirement, an institution must:

  • ensure that its Title IX grievance procedure is suitable and adequate for dealing with sexual harassment complaints and that the school is responsive to the rights of all parties involved; and
  • ensure that the grievance procedure is publicized and accessible to the entire academic community.

In addition to responding to incidents that have already occurred, steps could be taken to prevent sexual harassment. To help prevent sexual harassment, an institution could:

  • issue and disseminate an explicit statement that affirms its position that sexual harassment is a violation of institutional policy and will not be tolerated;
  • develop and adopt a working definition that identifies conduct that would be considered harassment; and
  • develop methods to inform new administrators, faculty and students of the institution’s sexual harassment policy and grievance procedures.

In the final analysis, adoption of strong preventive measures is the best way to confront sexual harassment. Additionally, the Supreme Court has affirmed the right of an individual to pursue private legal action under Title IX. In the event of a lawsuit, previously instituted preventive measures may also serve to reduce institutional liability resulting from acts of sexual harassment.