In a nationally televised news conference, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain denied sexual harassment allegations against him, claimed one accuser was “troubled,” and could not remember another complainant. Cain himself predicted that his political adversaries would solicit more accusers in the coming days.
It is no longer unusual to pick up a newspaper, go online, or turn on a TV and see politicians, celebrities, clergy – and educators too -- being charged with sexual harassment.
Coincidentally, the allegations against Cain surfaced at the same time a national survey by the American Association of University Women found that 48 percent of 1,965 students said they had experienced verbal, physical, or online sexual harassment in the 2010-2011 school year.
But how do we define sexual harassment? It’s actually a little bit tricky. A simple definition of sexual harassment is that it’s any behavior of a sexual nature that’s offensive in the “eye of the beholder.” This means that if a person feels uncomfortable about a gesture, comment or action, it could be defined as sexual harassment.
The legal definition of sexual harassment in schools can be traced to Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. This federal law made it illegal to discriminate against students on the basis of their sex, and to forbid unwelcome flirtations, sexual advances, propositions, continual or repeated verbal abuse of a sexual nature, use of sexually degrading words or actions, and the display of sexually suggestive pictures.
Every school district assigns one administrator to be the Title IX Officer. As the Title IX Officer in a large New York school district for more than a decade, it was my responsibility to investigate allegations of sexual harassment brought to my attention by administrators, teachers and parents. I wish I could say that there were no complaints, but each year there were several, involving both students and staff.
Before Title IX came into effect, there was no recourse for individuals – students and staff -- who felt uncomfortable with unsolicited sexual behavior or comments. But today we live in a very different world. It’s critically important that parents, students, and staff familiarize themselves with the latest policies and make sure that they are followed.
Sexual harassment may occur from student to student, from teacher to student, from administrator to teacher, from administrator to student, or administrator to administrator. There are two types of sexual harassment that particularly concern us in schools. The first kind is “quid pro quo.” That means that if you do something for me, I’ll repay you with such things as grades, promotion or job advancement. This usually has to do with an unequal power relationship between harasser and the target of harassment, or teacher and student. This is clearly against the law.
The other form of sexual harassment is that of a hostile or offensive environment. This is an environment that allows or encourages repetitive patterns of teasing, innuendoes or jokes of a sexual nature, and interferes with someone’s work or academic performance. This may or may not have to do with an unequal power arrangement, and may be employee to employee, student to student or student to teacher. This is also illegal.
The key with hostile environment complaints is that educators are responsible for this state of affairs whether they see the alleged behavior or not. If they pretend they do not see it and ignore it, they are still responsible. If they brush off or minimize complaints, they can also be held accountable. The most important thing for school personnel to remember is that they are held responsible for behaviors they permit as well as for behaviors they commit.
Parents, students, teachers, and administrators should keep the following points in mind:
- Know Your District Policies and Procedures.
- Sexual harassment is not defined by intention. It is defined by the impact on the target.
- Silence does not imply consent.
- Anything that takes place on e-mail or the Internet is easily traceable and can also form the basis for a sexual harassment complaint.
- Teachers should not be alone with students.
- Teachers and administrators are responsible for what goes on in the school. It is the responsibility of the adults in charge to address behaviors that may contribute to a hostile environment.
- Should you observe something you believe is sexual harassment, report it to a school administrator or the District Title IX Officer. All complaints must be investigated thoroughly and promptly.