Published Online:

Sexual Harassment Of Students Target Of District Policies

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

What happened to Johna Mennone in her environmental-science class in the fall of 1990 left her feeling "humiliated, terrorized, and distraught.''

In the presence of her teacher and a roomful of classmates, Ms. Mennone says, a male peer grabbed her hair, legs, breasts, and buttocks nearly every day. He repeatedly made remarks about her breasts and told her that he was going to rape her. The student allegedly continued the behavior in a later course.

In the past, what happened to Ms. Mennone might well have been chalked up to "high school'' behavior or "boys being boys.'' Today, it is the subject of a federal lawsuit filed by Ms. Mennone against the district superintendent, the school board, and her teacher at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge, Conn.

Like Ms. Mennone, students across the nation--together with their parents, teachers, and school officials--are beginning to deal with the thorny issues of how to define, prevent, and punish sexual harassment among students.

In recent months, experts in the field say, inquiries on the topic have increased markedly. In fact, the National School Boards Association has received so many requests for information that it created a "fax pack'' of information to be sent out via facsimile machine, said Karen Powe, the director of policy services for the association.

Many factors appear to have contributed to the heightened interest, experts agree, including a changing social climate that is less tolerant of sex discrimination of all kinds, the 1991 Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings on Capitol Hill, and a U.S. Supreme Court decision nearly a year ago that said school districts could be held liable for sexual harassment in school.

Many Gray Areas

Although sexual misconduct by teachers involving students seems to have garnered more attention and has been the subject of more school-district policies, sexual harassment exclusively involving students is actually much more prevalent, according to Nan D. Stein, who in 1980-81 conducted the first study of peer harassment in schools for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Most of the harassment in schools is inflicted on girls by boys and often takes place in the classroom, as in Ms. Mennone's case, according to Ms. Stein, who now directs a project on school sexual harassment at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College.

But the subject remains an unfamiliar one full of gray areas for school districts that are trying to codify prohibited student behavior and educate pupils and staff members in how to handle harassment.

Most experts agree that sexual harassment is defined by the victim: If an individual finds the comments or physical contact to be unwelcome, then it is harassment. But others acknowledge that what might not feel like harassment to the victim might appear to be harassment to, say, an administrator--and vice versa.

Then, too, what may be acceptable in a social setting or among some racial or ethnic groups--teasing, joking, or flirting in a sexual manner--is not acceptable in an educational setting, experts say.

Because sexual harassment is a continuum that can range from spoken or written comments and stares to physical assault and attempted rape, some of it may also be actionable as criminal activity, depending on local laws, Ms. Stein noted.

Policymakers also face a difficult task in wording guidelines banning such behavior, according to Robert Peck, the legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington.

"The key is that it cannot be regarded as harassment just because someone takes offense at an utterance,'' such as the word "bitch,'' Mr. Peck said.

However, a "personally directed threat that makes it impossible for a person'' to learn is something that a school has a right to regulate, he said.

'Dirty Little Secret'

As the issue has grown in public prominence, students have begun seeking school policies, legislation, and court decisions to protect themselves from the unwelcome verbal taunts and jokes, bathroom graffiti, pinching, groping, and other assaults that girls and women have been subjected to for generations.

"I think this is a dirty little secret that's been around for a long time ... something we've kind of accepted,'' State Sen. Gary Hart of California said of peer sexual harassment in school.

Senator Hart sponsored a state law that took effect last month that makes sexual harassment by students in grades 4 to 12 an offense punishable by suspension or expulsion.

"We're just serving notice to the principals and teachers ... that they need to pay attention to this,'' Mr. Hart said.

If sexual harassment is allowed to go unchecked, "the whole notion of trust or school as a safe and democratic place is vastly undermined,'' Ms. Stein said.

The issue is also receiving national attention.

Nineteen of the 40 sexual-harassment cases currently being investigated by the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights involve elementary or secondary education. Of those, at least two involve harassment by students, a department official said.

Both of those cases--one in Eden Prairie, Minn., and the other in Sherman, Tex.--allege harassment on school buses of elementary-age girls by their male peers.

In addition, two separate attempts are under way to document the prevalence and develop a profile of in-school sexual harassment.

This month, the results are expected from a national survey on sexual harassment in school designed by Ms. Stein and another researcher at the Wellesley center and printed in Seventeen magazine last fall.

And the American Association of University Women will also try to find out from a national random survey this year what both girls and boys have to say about sexual harassment.

The survey, the results of which are expected in June, will "hopefully raise the level of debate beyond anecdotal evidence,'' said Pamela Hughes, a spokeswoman for the A.A.U.W.

Anita Hill Has Influence

Sometimes it is a specific incident in a school district that prompts officials to address the issue.

Ana Sol Gutierrez, a member of the Montgomery County, Md., school board, said she knew her district needed rules about sexual harassment after a high school girl harassed by a male peer finally turned around one day on the school bus and slapped him. The incident earned both students a suspension for fighting because that was the only policy that applied.

The board has recently enacted a sexual-harassment policy for students.

Educators often cite the October 1991 allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas by Anita Hill, a law professor, and the High Court's February 1992 decision in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools allowing a student to sue a district for monetary damages in a sexual-harassment case as helping to shape their thinking on harassment.

In Indiana, for example, before the Thomas-Hill hearings, many school administrators were not willing to acknowledge that sexual harassment of any kind was a problem in their schools, said Beverly Peoples, an equity consultant with the state department of education.

Only a tiny number of administrators attended the voluntary in-service awareness sessions on sexual harassment offered by the state, Ms. Peoples said. But in recent months, such sessions have drawn a total of about 50 administrators.

Still, there are 296 school districts in Indiana, she said, and "systemic change is very slow.''

In the High Court's unanimous decision in Franklin, the Justices ruled that victims of sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in schools may sue for monetary damages under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. The law bars sexual discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges. (See Education Week, March 4, 1992.)

While the Franklin case concerned harassment and abuse of a student by a teacher, many observers attach great significance to the decision and its expansion of students' ability to obtain redress from school districts for discriminatory acts.

Others, however, say that it is not clear whether the protections of Title IX extend to sexual harassment by a student's peers. That issue, and the potential for damage awards against school districts, must still be decided in the federal courts, they said, although some expect that such guarantees will be extended to students.

On a related topic, the U.S. Supreme Court last month refused to consider the issue of whether the U.S. Constitution obliges public school officials to protect students from sexual assaults by teachers or other students. (See Education Week, Jan. 27, 1993.)

"An employer is responsible for the conduct of employees,'' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association. "Is [a school district] responsible for the conduct of students? I don't think you can necessarily say [that],'' she said.

The lawyer for Ms. Mennone, the former Connecticut student who alleges harassment in class, said she did not think the case would have been filed if it had not been for the precedent set by Franklin.

That case "certainly opens the door to students enforcing their rights under Title IX,'' Maureen M. Murphy said.

"I really think we're going to see a lot of litigation in this area,'' Ms. Murphy added.

Becoming Less Vulnerable

Lawyers and others say that school districts with established policies on sexual harassment may stand in better legal stead should a lawsuit arise.

In two states, districts have no choice but to confront the issue.

In Minnesota, and now in California, schools are required by law to adopt sexual-harassment policies that cover students.

Unlike the new California law, Minnesota's statute also requires each school to develop a process for discussing the policy with students and employees.

And State Commissioner of Education Betty Castor of Florida last year "strongly'' urged the state's 67 school districts to adopt procedures for dealing with sexual misconduct in school, including student-initiated sexual harassment, which she termed a "serious problem.''

"The safest thing for a school district to do is to adopt policies which provide remedies for students who believe they are victims ... and to build an awareness of the problem,'' said David S. Tatel, a Washington lawyer who is a former head of the office for civil rights at the U.S. Education Department.

Ms. Stein at the Wellesley center agreed.

"If we don't believe those kids, then get ready for a lawsuit,'' she said. "Because the kids that speak up, and write and tell me about sexual harassment--the descriptions are parallel to the descriptions that come out in the lawsuits,'' she said.

But Ms. Stein said officials also need to think about how to resolve complaints through both formal and informal, nonlitigious procedures.

One approach, she said, is to have the accuser--who may be satisfied simply to have the harassment cease--write a letter to the perpetrator, under the supervision of an adult trained in the procedure, asking him or her to stop the harassment.

Other educators use parent conferences or even have a police officer present during a discussion with the harasser to strengthen the message.

Breaking the Cycle

Even punishment under harassment policies can be a learning experience if an offending student must, for example, write a report on the subject of sexual harassment, officials said.

Teachers and counselors must also be intensively trained beyond basic awareness to discuss these issues in the classroom, Ms. Stein said, so that they can "impart not just knowledge, but the subjectivity and difficulty of this subject to the kids.''

Lesson plans and pamphlets exist for junior high and high school students, who are able to grasp the meaning of sexual harassment when it is compared with its benign counterpart, flirting, experts said.

But conveying the concept to elementary-age students--for whom curricula are still in the works--is more of a challenge and calls for comparisons to bullying, they said.

And the youngest student should not be left out of policies or education, educators said.

Susan F. Sattel, a sex-equity specialist for the Minnesota Department of Education, said she knew of an incident in which two 6-year-old boys who were 1st graders at a private school sexually assaulted another 6-year-old at knifepoint.

"The earlier you intervene [with kids on sexual harassment], the better results you have in the long run,'' said Cynthia Chestnut, the director of student and community services for the Alachua County, Fla., schools who headed up the effort to draft that district's policy last year.

"If you make them aware of this in schools,'' she said, "you break the cycle and they're not growing up to be sexually harassing adults.''

Students Push for Policy

Efforts to educate students can pay off, school officials say.

Central High School in St. Paul is planning to reinstate two-day awareness lessons with its students that were successful several years ago in addressing sexual harassment, said Franklin Wharton, a social worker at the school.

The presentations--which included discussion of typical harassment situations--provided a "real dramatic impact on redefining what some youngsters thought was fun and games,'' Mr. Wharton said.

"Many of them don't know what constitutes sexual harassment,'' he added.

In one district, the students gave the educators a policy lesson.

The Sequoia Union High School District in Redwood City, Calif., credits the existence of its peer sexual-harassment policy to the activism of students.

Prompted by the Thomas-Hill hearings as well as by an incident in the district, a 23-member student advisory council decided to draw up the policy as its annual project, said Susan Bendix, the administrative liaison to the student group.

The panel, about evenly divided between high school boys and girls who are appointed by school officials, got administrators as well as students in the 6,400-student, ethnically diverse district to sign on to the idea.

They saw their efforts result in the adoption of the policy last April by the school board, which had one eye on the possibility that the legislature would mandate such policies, Ms. Bendix said.

Policy Road Problematic

For some districts, the road to drawing up and implementing a policy against peer sexual harassment has been full of controversy and legal potholes.

The school board in Montgomery County, Md., of which Ms. Gutierrez is a member, had just adopted its policy on student harassment in November when it found itself threatened with legal action, in part because training and educational materials were not yet in place.

Superintendent Paul L. Vance determined last month that one school had handled poorly a harassment complaint brought under the new policy. In addition, he said, the school's printed information on the policy, which students had assailed as "sexist,'' has also been withdrawn.

Last year, another district, the Petaluma Joint Union High School District in northern California, found itself on the losing end of a lawsuit even as it was developing a peer sexual-harassment policy.

Displeased with the way the district handled her complaint about boys who "mooed'' and commented on her breasts, Tawnya Brawdy, then a student at Kenilworth Junior High, and her mother filed suit.

Last year, they settled out of court with the school district's insurance company for $20,000.

However, "the district feels it did act appropriately,'' said Kim Jamieson, Petaluma's deputy superintendent.

A committee, which includes Tawnya's mother, Louise, is expected to submit a "model, state-of-the-art'' student-harassment policy to the school board within a couple of months.

No Bar to Lawsuits

Yet, even when a school district has a policy in place it may face legal challenges.

In what is considered the first case of a student's winning monetary damages from a district because of a peer harassment case, Katherine Lyle, a former student at Central High School in Duluth, Minn., received a $15,000 settlement in September 1991 from the state human-rights department for "alleged mental anguish and suffering.''

The award came after an investigation by the state office found that the district had failed to act appropriately after sexually offensive graffiti about Katy, as she is known, appeared in a boys' bathroom at the school in 1987 and was not removed despite repeated requests from the Lyles.

Duluth has had a sexual-harassment policy that covered students since 1982, officials said. Unfortunately, said Katy's mother, Carol Lyle--who is a teacher in the district--graffiti was not considered sexual harassment at the time.

As part of the settlement, custodians in the district must check daily for graffiti, remove it, and report its existence to officials.

The district now instructs students about sexual harassment in grade-level appropriate curriculum, and Katy herself has led lessons on the subject.

"It seems,'' Carol Lyle said of the policy change, "to be taken seriously.''

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented