Sexual harassment of students is illegal.A federal law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX), prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, including sexual harassment, in education programs and activities.All public and private educational institutions that receive any federal funds must comply with Title IX.Title IX protects students from harassment connected to any of the academic, educational, extracurricular, athletic, and other programs or activities of schools, regardless of the location.Title IX protects both male and female students from sexual harassment by any school employee, another student, or a non-employee third party.
Preventing and remedying sexual harassment in schools is essential to ensure a nondiscriminatory, safe environment in which students can learn.Unfortunately,students,parents, and school staff may not know what sexual harassment is,how to stop it,and what can be done to prevent it from happening.
Sexual harassment is conduct that:
1. is sexual in nature;
2. is unwelcome; and
3. denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s education program.
Sexual harassment can take different forms depending on the harasser and the nature of the harassment.The conduct can be carried out by school employees, other students,and non-employee third parties,such as a visiting speaker.Both male and female students can be victims of sexual harassment,and the harasser and the victim can be of the same sex.
The conduct can occur in any school program or activity and can take place in school facilities,on a school bus,or at other off-campus locations,such as a school-sponsored field trip or a training program at another location.The conduct can be verbal,nonverbal, or physical.
The judgment and common sense of teachers and school administrators are very important elements in determining whether sexual harassment has occurred and in determining an appropriate response, especially when dealing with young children.
Examples of sexual conduct include:
>> making sexual propositions or pressuring students for sexual favors;
>> touching of a sexual nature;
>> writing graffiti of a sexual nature;
>> displaying or distributing sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials;
>> performing sexual gestures or touching oneself sexually in front of others;
>> telling sexual or dirty jokes;
>> spreading sexual rumors or rating other students as to sexual activity or performance; or
>> circulating or showing e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.
Two general types of sexual conduct can deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from a school’s program.As discussed below, teachers and other school employees can engage in either type of conduct, while students and third parties can engage in only one type.
One form of sexual harassment occurs when a teacher or other school employee conditions an educational decision or benefit on the student’s submission to unwelcome sexual conduct.If this occurs, it does not matter whether the student resists and suffers the threatened harm or submits to and avoids the threatened harm.
Sexual harassment also occurs when a teacher, school employee, other student,or third party creates a hostile environment that is sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the school’s program.Whether such a hostile environment has been created depends on the particular circumstances of the incident(s).Relevant considerations include, but are not limited to:
>> how much of an adverse effect the conduct had on the student’s education;
>> the type, frequency, or duration of the conduct;
>> the identity, age, and sex of the harasser(s) and the victim(s), and the relationship between them;
>> the number of individuals who engaged in the harassing conduct and at whom the harassment was directed;
>> the size of the school, location of the incidents, and context in which they occurred; and
>> whether other incidents occurred at the school involving different students.
The conduct does not necessarily have to be repetitive.If sufficiently severe, single or isolated incidents can create a hostile environment.
Even, young students can engage in sexual harassment.School personnel should consider the age and maturity of students in responding to allegations of sexual harassment.When determining whether a young child has committed sexual harassment, it is important for teachers and school administrators to use good judgment and common sense.
Responding to Sexual Harassment
If a student, his or her parent, or a responsible employee reports the harassment or a school employee observes the harassment,the school should inform the harassed student (and the student’s parent depending on the student’s age) of the options for formal and informal action and of the school’s responsibilities,which are discussed below.Regardless of whether the victim files a formal complaint or requests action, the school must conduct a prompt, impartial, and thorough investigation to determine what happened and must take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.
If other sources, such as a witness to the incident, an anonymous letter or phone call, or the media, report the harassment, the school should respond in the same manner described above if it is reasonable for the school to conduct an investigation and the school can confirm the allegations.Considerations relevant to this determination may include, but are not limited to, the:
>> source and nature of the information;
>> seriousness of the alleged incident;
>> specificity of the information;
>> objectivity and credibility of the source that made the report;
>> ability to identify the alleged victims; and
>> cooperation from the alleged victims in pursuing the matter.
What if the victim requests confidentiality or asks that the complaint not be pursued?
The school should take all reasonable steps to investigate and respond to the complaint in a manner consistent with a request for confidentiality from a student.If a student insists that his or her name not be disclosed to the harasser, the school’s ability to respond may be limited.The school also must consider its responsibility to provide a safe and nondiscriminatory environment for all students.Thus, the school must weigh the confidentiality request against the following factors:
>> seriousness of the alleged harassment;
>> age of the harassed student; and
>> other complaints that the same individual has harassed others.
It may be necessary for schools to take interim measures during the investigation of a complaint. For instance, if a student alleges harassment by another student, the school may keep those students separated until the investigation is complete.If a teacher is the alleged harasser, it may be appropriate for the student to transfer to another class.
It is a good practice for schools to keep the student who alleged the harassment informed of the status of the investigation.
The school must notify the victim (and his or her parents depending on the age of the victim) of the outcome of its investigation and of any punishments imposed that directly relate to the victim, such as an order for the harasser to stay away from the victim.
If the school determines that a student was sexually harassed, the school must take reasonable, prompt, age-appropriate, and effective action to end the harassment and prevent it from happening again to the victim or to others.If the school fails to do so, it must remedy the effects of the harassment on the victim that could have been avoided if the school had responded promptly and effectively.
In addition, if the harasser is a school employee and if the harassment occurs while the employee is acting, or reasonably appears to be acting, in the context of carrying out his or her responsibilities to provide aid, benefits, and services, the school must remedy the effects of the harassment on the victim.
Ending and Preventing Sexual Harassment
The appropriate steps that a school or district takes should be tailored to the specific situation. For example, the school may need to develop and publicize new policies or conduct sexual harassment safety training for staff.Depending on the nature and severity of the harassment, counseling, discipline, or further separation of the victim and harasser may be necessary.
Responsive measures should be designed to minimize the burden on the victim as much as possible.If the school’s initial response does not stop the harassment and prevent it from happening again, the school may need to take additional, stronger measures.
Reporting and Preventing Sexual Harassment
Who should report incidents of sexual harassment?
Anybody who sees sexual harassment occurs should report it; the individual need not be the victim of the harassment.Schools should ensure that employees clearly understand the extent of their responsibilities for reporting sexual harassment.
To whom should a victim or other individual report the harassment?
The harassment should be reported to a responsible school employee, such as a teacher, principal, faculty member, administrator, security officer, affirmative action officer, or professional staff member in the office of student affairs.Additionally, as every school must have a Title IX coordinator, the harassment can be reported to this individual as well.A student, parent, or another individual also may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), as explained below.
What if the harasser threatens to retaliate against the victim if he or she reports the incident?
Title IX also protects students from retaliation. The school must take steps to prevent the alleged harasser or anybody else at the school from retaliating against the victim. Such steps include informing students that Title IX protects them from retaliation, making sure that victims know how to report any future problems, and making follow-up inquiries to see if there have been any new incidents. It also may be appropriate to counsel the harasser to ensure that he or she understands that retaliation is prohibited. If retaliation occurs, the school should take strong responsive actions.
What procedures must a school have in place to prevent sexual harassment and resolve complaints?
Every school must:
>> issue a policy against sex discrimination;
>> adopt and publicize grievance procedures; and
>> have a Title IX coordinator.
What are grievance procedures?
Grievance procedures are internal school procedures that address violations of a school’s policy against discrimination, including sexual harassment.Grievance procedures must provide for the prompt and equitable resolution of complaints of sex discrimination.
The school should make sure that its policy against sex discrimination and grievance procedures are widely distributed and easily understood by students, parents of elementary and secondary school students, and employees. At a minimum, students must know that the grievance procedure exists, know how it works, and know how to file a complaint. When a student or parent reports sexual harassment, the school should explain how its grievance procedures work and offer the student or parent the opportunity to use them.
If a student or parent chooses to not use the school’s grievance procedures, that does not relieve the school of its responsibilities to investigate and take appropriate action, as explained above in Part Two.
What does the Title IX coordinator do?
The Title IX Coordinator is responsible for coordinating a school’s efforts to comply with and carry out its Title IX responsibilities. Every school must have a Title IX coordinator. Title IX coordinators must have adequate training in sexual harassment and must be able to explain the operation of the school’s grievance procedure.
How do I know who my school’s Title IX coordinator is?
Every school must notify all students and employees of the name, office address, and telephone number of its Title IX coordinator(s).
What other steps can a school take to prevent sexual harassment?
OCR’s experience shows that the best way for a school to deal with sexual harassment is to prevent it from occurring in the first place.In addition to the requirements explained above (well-publicized nondiscrimination policy, grievance procedures, and Title IX Coordinator), a school may take a number of other steps to prevent harassment.
For example, as part of their overall school safety strategy, a school or district may conduct periodic sexual harassment safety training for all staff, including administrators, teachers, and guidance counselors, and age-appropriate sexual harassment training for students. The training can include information on the types of conduct that will be considered sexual harassment and the range of possible consequences, the damage that results from harassment, where students can find help, ways to oppose harassment, and what to do about it.
What is OCR, and how do I report incidents of sexual harassment to that office?
OCR is the federal agency responsible for ensuring that schools comply with Title IX and other federal civil rights laws. One of OCR’s responsibilities is to resolve complaints of discrimination, including sexual harassment complaints. OCR has 12 enforcement offices located throughout the country that carries out this responsibility.An individual who wishes to file a complaint with OCR should do so by contacting the enforcement office responsible for the state in which that school is located. To find out which office is responsible for your state and how to contact them, call 1-800-421-3481 or check OCR’s Web site at http://www.ed.gov/ocr. Generally, the complaint must be filed within 180 days of the date of the incident. Students and parents are not required to use a school’s grievance procedures before filing a complaint with OCR.
It’s important to understand that sexual harassment is first and foremost a form of discrimination, and, as such, is illegal under both state and federal law. In fact, school districts and/or schools who fail to protect workers against sexual harassment can lose state and federal funding, as well as be subject to lawsuits from individuals.
Sexual harassment also contributes to a hostile environment that can impede morale, inhibit learning, damage careers, and injury victims emotionally, psychologically, and even physically. It’s illegal, disrespectful, and injurious to the foundations of academia.
And while harassment victims are the focal point of concern, harassers themselves have much to lose as well. Disciplinary actions and legal recourse can cost the perpetrator his or her career, family health, personal health, and monetary well-being. Yet there are still those who believe that sexual harassment is harmless!
This is where YOU come in. Your leadership characteristics have earned you supervisory responsibilities in your school or district. This also means that you share the burden of safeguarding your workplace from sexual harassment incidents. It also means that you can help ensure that any alleged incidents of sexual harassment are properly investigated in a manner consistent with your school and/or district policy.
Reproduced with permission. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, Sexual Harassment: It’s Not Academic, Washington, D.C., 2008.
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