Sexual Harassment in Education:

It's Against the Law



What is the scope of the problem?

Acts of sexual harassment take place every day in schools across the country. Frequently these acts, even if reported to administration, are dismissed as harmless flirtation, as "kids will be kids," or as "no big deal." Many people do not realize that sexual harassment that interferes with a person's educational progress is illegal, just as it is illegal in the workplace.

In a survey of 79 public schools across the United States, 81% of the students in grades eight to 11 experienced some form of sexual harassment. The results of this survey, completed by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), show that four out of five students who are harassed are targeted by a current or former student of their schools, with the remainder of the harassment coming from adults or school staff.

Although girls experience more sexual harassment, it can also happen to boys. And both boys and girls could by harassed by someone of the same sex. While the focus of this information sheet is on sexual harassment, harassment because of race, national origin , religion and physical and mental disability is also illegal.

Harassment is everyone's problem. An educational institution that allows harassment to go unchecked can experience serious morale problems, resulting in poor working conditions for staff and an unsatisfactory educational experience for students.


What is the impact of sexual harassment on the educational process?

Students who have been harassed have reported the following feelings and actions:

· Not wanting to attend school; staying home, or cutting class

· Not wanting to talk as much in class

· Finding it hard to pay attention

· Making a lower grade on a test or in a class

· Wanting to change schools or even drop out

· Dropping out of chosen classes or field of study

· Not being able to obtain customary recommendations or letters of reference from a teacher

There is also the emotional impact of feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, less confident, and guilty about being the target of harassment. Many victims report being afraid of the harasser and trying to avoid contact with this person.


What actions are considered to be sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome visual, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that interferes with a person's education process. The harassment may be quid pro quo, in which a person in authority demands sexual favors in return for a benefit for the student, such as a passing grade or admission to a class or program. A second type of harassment is hostile environment, in which a student is subjected to sexual conduct that creates an offensive, hostile or intimidating atmosphere in the school. Some of these behaviors are:

· Making comments about a person's body or sex life

· Making sexual comments, jokes, gestures

· Looking or staring at a person in a sexual manner

· Touching, grabbing, pinching, or brushing up against in a sexual way

· Flashing or mooning

· Spreading rumors about a person's activities or relationships

· Blocking passage in a sexual way

· Writing sexual messages, love notes or sexual graffiti

· Pulling clothing down or off

· Calling a person gay or lesbian

· Spying on someone while showering or dressing

· Forcing kisses or other sexual advances

· Forcing someone to look at sexual pictures or materials.

In the AAUW Survey, hallways and classrooms were the places where harassment most frequently took place. This was in spite of the fact that these places are public and other people are usually present. Other places where harassment took place included school grounds, gymnasium, pool, locker rooms, restrooms, parking lot, school busses and on field trips. For many young people, school is not a safe place.


What do the laws say?


Federal law: Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments prohibits differential treatment on the basis of sex. This applies to any educational program or activity which receives federal funds, and protects both employees and students.

To initiate a complaint under this law, contact:

Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Dept. of Education, 816-860-4200


State law: Iowa Code Section 216.9 prohibits

discrimination on the basis of sex in any academic, extracurricular, research, occupational training, or other program or activity (except athletic programs). While harassment is not expressly prohibited, harassment is considered to be a form of sex discrimination. This law applies to any preschool, elementary, secondary, community college, area education agency, or post- secondary college or university. To file a complaint under state law, contact the Iowa Civil Rights Commission.


What do schools need to do about sexual harassment?


An important part of a school's program is to take steps to prevent sexual harassment before it occurs. An institution needs to raise the issue and confront harassment before it becomes a problem.

· Under Title IX, schools should have a policy prohibiting sexual harassment. Administrators, teachers and students must be informed of the policy.

· Under Title IX, schools must establish a grievance procedure that is adequate and suitable for dealing with sexual harassment complaints.

· Acknowledge the problem; don't deny that it could happen in your school.

· Provide training to administrators, staff and students so that they understand and recognize prohibited behavior and how to report it.

· Administrators, teachers and adult staff should set a good example of professional behavior.


Once a sexual harassment complaint has been filed, the school administration needs to take prompt remedial action.

· When a harassment complaint is filed, take it seriously. Assure the person that a prompt and confidential investigation will take place.

· Designate and train persons to investigate complaints. Sensitivity to the problem, sound professional judgment, and knowledge of legal standards of investigation are important.

· If the investigation shows that the harassment did happen, take prompt disciplinary action against the harasser.


What can you do if sexual harassment happens to you?

Remember, sexual harassment is not your fault. You have a right to an educational setting free of harassment. Do not feel powerless. There are actions you can take to end the harassment.

· Don't ignore the harassment; it usually doesn't go away by itself, and may get worse if no action is taken.

· Tell the harasser in person or in writing that the behavior is not welcome. Ask them to stop. Be specific about actions or words that make you uncomfortable.

· Tell someone else about the harassment, a trusted adult such as a parent, teacher, counselor, or friend.

· Keep a written record of the incidents of harassment. This will be important if an investigation becomes necessary. Make note of any witnesses who might have observed the incident.

· If the harassment does not stop, report it to school administration. Ask a parent or friend to go with you if you need support. Insist that the school not ignore the situation.

· If the institution does not take prompt action to stop and resolve the harassment, file a complaint with an outside agency such as the Iowa Civil Rights Commission or the U.S. Department of Education.

· If you are a friend of someone who is being harassed, offer your support and be a good listener. Urge them to report the harassment.



Stein, Nan, Nancy L. Marshall, and Linda R. Troop, Secrets in Public: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools. Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College, c 1993.

Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America's Schools. AAUW Educational Foundation, c 1993.

Tune In to Your Rights: A Guide for Teenagers About Turning Off Sexual Harassment. Center for Sex Equity in Schools, The University of Michigan, c 1985.

Sexual Harassment: It's Not Academic. U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, c 1991.

Wheeler, Molly, ed. No Big Deal: A Sexual Harassment Training Manual for Middle School and High School Students. Iowa Department of Education, Educational Equity Project, 1993-94.