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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Education Opinion

Sexual Harassment & Assault in Schools

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 21, 2020 20 min read
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The new question-of-the-week is:

Have you ever seen or experienced sexual harassment at school, and would you feel comfortable sharing that experience? How can teachers best deal with sexual harassment in the classroom and/or with professional colleagues?

Sexual harassment is not new in society or, more specifically, to schools. However, the #MeToo Movement has exposed it more to public attention. Contributors to today’s post will share both their experiences and recommendations about how educators might effectively respond to this challenge.

Martha Caldwell, Oman Frame, Jen Schwanke, Toni Faddis, Dr. Laura McGuire, and an educator who requested anonymity share their commentaries. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Martha, Jen, Toni, and Laura on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources for Teaching About Sexual Harassment & Assault.

Sexual harassment: the call to intervene and educate

Martha Caldwell and Oman Frame, the authors of Let’s Get Real: Exploring Race, Class, and Gender Identities in the Classroom, are veteran educators and co-founders of iChange Collaborative. They provide professional-development training and consulting in diversity, equity, and inclusions best practices for schools.

A middle school we worked with saw a dramatic decrease in incidents of sexual harassment after one session with students. The program covered the definition of sexual harassment, described common scenarios, and outlined a reporting procedure. Nearly all the students had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, but now they had a language to resist it.

Students’ real-life experience can be the basis for calling power relationships into question, and nowhere is this call more urgent than in gender politics at school. Research on bullying reveals a clear gender gap: Heterosexual boys harass heterosexual girls at higher rates at every level, with disparities increasing with age; 79 percent of LGBT students report bullying; and 96 percent of transgender students report physical harassment. Gender-based harassment correlates to low self-esteem, poor academic performance, elevated levels of depression, and increased risk of suicide during adolescence.

The #MeToo Movement shows us that sexual harassment and violence are endemic to our culture. The seeds of toxicity are sown early, with students acting out noxious gender roles in grade school. Girls as young as 10 describe being rated by groups of boys based on their physical appearance. Who gives boys the power to rate girls? We do when we fail to intervene and educate.

Conditioned to cooperate and maintain an attitude of “niceness,” girls encounter a culture that seeks to both idealize and exploit their sexuality. If they can’t express anger directly, they risk internalizing it. Rather than confronting boys, they may self-objectify and compete for higher approval ratings, acting out their anger in relational aggression against other girls (who are safer targets than the boys who demean them).

Boys grow up hearing “act like a man” and “big boys don’t cry.” If they don’t conform to conventional gender performance, they risk ridicule. They mask their pain to protect themselves. The role of “unemotional, tough guy” isolates them and interferes with authentic relationships.

Strict adherence to binary categories keeps unequal gender-power dynamics in place, so while conversations may begin with the categories of male and female, they don’t end there. Inquiries into gender lead to questions about gender identity (concept of self as female, male, both, or neither), gender roles (normative behaviors based on binary identities), gender expression (dress, mannerisms, voice, etc.), and sexual orientation (attraction).

Students benefit from talking about their gendered experiences with trusted adults. We can guide them to resist coercion and make healthy decisions. We can introduce vocabulary terms of “they,” “them,” or their for gender and sexuality literacy. In academic courses, we can offer sources and literature that reflect their experience and validate their identities. We can empower them to analyze power dynamics in their relationships, and in the wider world, and take a stand against unfair treatment.

In the process, students learn the language of consent. They learn to identify healthy boundaries and cultivate personal agency, which empowers them to make conscious decisions about how they want to express their sexuality and identity. They emerge from such discussions better equipped to resist coercive influences and persistent media hype. Kai, an 8th grader, wrote, “I never stopped to think about how much pressure I get from other guys to go after sex.” Kai realized how cultural messages about male identity informed his ideas of gender and sexuality and how peer pressure affected his behavior.

Students need to incorporate characteristics from all along the gender spectrum to develop into healthy adults. Girls need to practice speaking their minds directly; they need opportunities to learn how to exercise power (and be valued and validated for doing so); and they need to understand the importance of supporting other girls and women. Boys need to “transgress” conventional gender roles to become more aware of their emotions; they need to learn to communicate with empathy and understanding, and they need to make decisions fueled by care for others. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender students need a safe place to explore their identities.

We can help students question gender norms and explore the cognitive contradictions and role confusion they experience. Learning to think objectively—to think systematically about gendered identities and to act in ways that heal rather than reinforce gender inequality—is a transformational process that strengthens identity, empowers agency, and activates change.

“Tell someone. Do something”

Jen Schwanke has been an educator for 20 years, teaching or leading at all levels. She is the author of You’re the Principal! Now What? Strategies and Solutions for New School Leaders, published by ASCD. Schwanke has written for Choice Literacy, Education Week Teacher, Principal, and Principal Navigator. An instructor in educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, Schwanke has also provided professional development to various districts in the areas of school climate, personnel, and instructional leadership. She is currently a principal for the Dublin City school district in Dublin, Ohio. Follow Schwanke on Twitter @Jenschwanke:

I’ve never publicly shared my experience of sexual harassment. Doing so uncovers an uncomfortable vulnerability that still, even with age, time, and perspective, brings shame and confusion. Like many women, I am hard-wired to squelch experiences that illicit conflict or controversy. I absorb blame. I smooth over rough patches. I hush.

He had a high-ranking position in our district. I was in my late 20s, insecure, eager to prove myself, and unused to the attention of powerful, confident, wealthy older men. When I met him, he was charming and attentive. His words sounded innocent but felt prickly, somehow, because they came with a heavy-lidded gaze and a slow drawl, delivered in a tone that left me off-balance.

One cold January night, after a district event, he said, “A bunch of us are going for a drink. You should join us.” He held my eye. A group, I thought, relieved. But when I entered the restaurant, he was alone, waving from the bar.

No one else showed up.

He ordered martinis. He leaned in. He winked. His compliments came so fast I couldn’t absorb or deflect them. He ordered a second round. “No, please—no more for me,” I protested. “Drink it,” he said, pushing the drink toward me, "... or I’ll have to order you a kiddie cup of milk.” Ashamed, for reasons I couldn’t articulate, I took it. When I glanced at my watch, he mocked me: “Is it time for little girls to go to bed?” A third martini appeared. I faked it, spitting the alcohol into my water glass when he wasn’t looking. His sexual innuendos increased, coy and relentless. When his hand touched my thigh, I shifted. He squeezed, hard. I stammered through a frantic, feeble excuse and fumbled with my coat. I could hear his low chuckle as I fled.

The text messages started that night. I’m sorry. I took it too far. You are so young. You weren’t ready for me. Please meet me for dinner. Can I have another chance?

Please stop, I replied. I can’t do this. The messages continued and so did gifts, every few days, expensive gifts that revealed how little he knew me: A spa gift card. A bottle of Dom Periognon. Flowers, flowers, more flowers. I blamed myself. What had I done or said to make him think this was OK?

I called my father, crying and terrified. “He’s, like, the boss of my boss, Dad.”

“He’s dangerous and he’s sick,” my father said, gently. “Get out of this and try to do it without damaging yourself professionally.”

I wrote a careful letter, angsting over every word, explaining my discomfort and my wish for it to stop, begging him not to retaliate. For what, I didn’t even know. He responded immediately, raging and accusatory. He closed with, You’ll regret this.

I called my father again. “And now you tell someone,” he said, firmly. “Protect yourself. While you’re at it, you can protect other women.”

Heavy with fear and bewilderment, I called Human Resources. Before our meeting, I vomited in the restroom, knotted with anxiety and fear.

The HR director was kind, careful, professional, and relentlessly supportive. I later learned there had been other reports, other problems, deep issues with this man’s leadership and ethics. It turned out I was a mere side story to a larger, uglier one, a story that hit the news and made the entire community bubble over with gossip. It was an awful time. For months, I was a mess: I drank too much, slept fitfully, and questioned my future in the organization. I railed at myself for my role in something I didn’t even understand.

An eventual investigation and his resignation lessened my fear, as did a true belief I’d done the right thing. I’m stronger, now. When people talk about the trappings of sexual harassment, I understand it is never as simple as it seems. And I say: Tell someone. Do something. Do not suffer alone. Do not let someone else develop your future or derail your confidence. You’re a teacher: You are noble and strong and valuable. Be so.

Progams alone are not enough

Toni Faddis, Ed.D., has served as a public school educator for the past 26 years as a teacher, principal, and district leader. She is also a faculty member of the Educational Leadership Department at San Diego State University, teaching courses on ethical leadership, problem-solving, and communication skills to teachers who aspire to become school principals. Toni is an author and consultant for Corwin and recently published her first book, The Ethical Line: 10 Leadership Strategies for Effective Decision Making (Corwin Press, 2019) and has authored numerous articles related to instruction and ethical leadership:

I have personal experience with sexual harassment as a teacher and as a principal. When these situations occurred, I naively thought the system would protect me, or better yet, address my concerns. I was wrong. Both times.

Sexual Harassment as a Teacher

When I was a new teacher, I had lunch with an instructional aide from the school. I’ll call him Romeo. Romeo wanted more from me than I was willing to give. On more than one occasion, he barged into my classroom and demanded to know why I wouldn’t return his calls. He threatened to drive off a cliff into the Pacific Ocean if I wouldn’t go out with him. He figured out my address and stalked me at home, too.

I knew I had to get help. I talked to my principal. Our first conversation was short; she told me to “get over it” and that it “wasn’t that bad.” I remember telling her that not only was Romeo disrupting my life, he was also interrupting classroom instruction! She rolled her eyes and sent me on my way, tiredly telling me that she was sure he’d “get over” me.

I went back to that principal on two more occasions that school year, and both times I felt dismissed. I never saw her take any notes about my claim of sexual harassment, and to my knowledge, she never took any action. I remember feeling this educational leader had no intention of protecting me or even taking my concerns seriously.

Sexual Harassment as a Principal

The second time I made a complaint of sexual harassment, I was a novice principal in a new school district. I caught the custodian “Tom” (as in Peeping) spying on me in the women’s restroom. Tom knew I exercised before school; he greeted me when I arrived in a track suit as I headed to the restroom to change into work clothes. Then I got that eerie feeling that someone was watching me. Before entering the bathroom stall, I caught sight of Tom’s face peering in through the window, hoping to catch me in the midst of changing clothes.

I reported that incident to the assistant superintendent of human resources at the district office. He asked if Tom had seen me changing or had touched me in any way. I said no, but it was really creepy. I wanted to know if Tom should be around children. I asked when his fingerprints were last taken. I asked several other questions but was told it was not a “big deal.” Frustrated, I went to a female assistant superintendent and explained what had happened. She had the same reaction and told me that “this happens to women” so I should “let it go.”

I got the impression that my superiors wanted me, and my claim, to go away. I sensed from the tone of those conversations that pursuing any follow-up action would cast me in a negative light. So, I put up with it.


Those two situations of sexual harassment were formative experiences for me. Now that I’m an experienced principal and have more confidence in myself, I guide staff and community members to report any and all incidences of wrongdoing. I take notes when someone makes a complaint. I provide resources to help individuals through difficult situations. I make it known that discrimination, sexual harassment, or any other form of intimidation are not tolerated. Not just by me because I’m the principal, but because that’s what we expect of each other.

Today, some staff members still face sexual harassment in their schools. Fortunately, sexual harassment is less tolerated today, and filing a complaint for it, or for discrimination, or other form of unfairness is more supported. Technology also makes reporting more accessible, provides employees’ rights in layman’s terms, and may offer other resources such as hotlines to speak with counselors.

In addition to reporting the incident, I now recommend anyone who has experienced sexual harassment to write down as many details of the incident as you can remember. Remain strong in your convictions that this behavior is unwarranted and unacceptable in any working environment. If you’re not satisfied with your immediate supervisor’s response, keep pressing on. You have every right to feel safe, protected, and free of sexual harassment.

For principals who are made aware of a claim of sexual harassment, I also recommend specific actions to take. First, show the importance of the claim by visibly showing you are listening carefully. Take thorough notes and repeat back what you heard to ensure your interpretation is accurate. Next, determine who will conduct the investigation. Are you, the supervisor, the best person in this case to lead an investigation? You may not be. In these cases, Human Resources staff must also be alerted. Work collaboratively with HR officials to identify next steps.

Looking back, I believe those situations with Romeo and Tom actually strengthened my ethical resolve. Obeying the law is the minimum requirement; having high ethical standards and honorable conduct means adhering to basic values such as integrity, honesty, and respect. Programs and policies alone do not stop sexual harassment or abusive conduct.

“Lewd jokes, invasive questions, and inappropriate remarks”

Dr. Laura McGuire is a nationally recognized sexologist, sexual-violence-prevention trainer, and consent subject-matter expert. She runs the National Center for Equity and Agency and is the author of the upcoming book, Creating Cultures of Consent; A Guide for Parents and Educators (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020):

Sexual harassment (SH) is something that goes beyond peer to peer or from one colleague to another; it is a problem felt by many and experienced across hierarchal roles and pay grades. We most often think of it as something a supervisor does to a direct report, but sexual harassment goes far and above that dynamic.

One of the reasons for this misconception is the way the media portray SH. We most often see the classic quid pro quo situation where a person in power asks for a date or sexual favors in exchange for benefits at work. The reality is that those situations are not the majority of sexual-harassment cases. Most are lewd jokes, invasive questions, and inappropriate remarks that lead the victim to experience what is called “a hostile environment.” This is certainly felt by teachers and students alike.

As a teacher, I faced harassment from students who would make inappropriate comments on my looks as well as consistently press for information on my sexual orientation. This certainly made me feel emotionally unsafe, and I received little support from supervisors on how to handle this early in my career. I have experienced sexual harassment from colleagues who would ask over and over if I would go out with them, and in one particularly awful situation, a fellow teacher said she would rape me if I didn’t give her my muffin. I can’t make that one up.

The solution is to build school cultures that seek to educate, empower, and heal. Education about both Title IX (discrimination in education) and Title VII (discrimination in employment) are crucial and federally mandated. Empowering students and staff to understand what SH is and how to address it, and implementing effective policies are key. Then comes the work of healing from harm that has already been done and offering restorative practices for those who have caused harm and their victims so that problems can be faced and change can be monitored.

Inappropirate attention from students

The writer of this response requested anonymity:

When I was a fairly new teacher, I reached out to a male student of mine who never participated in class. I’ll call him Jeff, though that isn’t his real name. I was worried about Jeff and wanted him to feel comfortable in my classroom. Unfortunately, reaching out to Jeff gave him the wrong idea about my intentions. He came into my classroom before and after school and during lunch to talk to me and repeatedly brought up that we really should “get to know each other better” or “hang out sometime.” I repeatedly told him that while he could always talk to me at school if he needed help, I’m his teacher and not his friend, and we really can’t “hang out”.

It was clear to me at the beginning that Jeff was not well-versed in social cues, possibly on the autism spectrum but incredibly high functioning in most ways. I continued to tell him that I was his teacher and nothing more but began to worry about his insistence that we “do something” outside of school. I reached out to the principal only to hear that “he does this to all the female teachers” with no talk of punishment or any advice on how to deal with the situation. I was stuck in a dilemma wherein I felt more and more uncomfortable with this student each day and clearly wouldn’t be getting any support from my administration. In addition, this student would not be punished, thereby never getting the message that his behavior was inappropriate.

I was such a new teacher that I honestly didn’t even know how to contact his parents or even know that I should contact them. This was one of the first times I realized that as a fairly small woman, a student of Jeff’s size (and he was on the small size for a teenage boy) could easily physically overpower me. I began to fear that if Jeff really never got the message, or if he got the message and got angry about it, I could be in physical danger. Thankfully, Jeff’s attentions faded after a few months.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. A few months after I left this school, Jeff’s brother began messaging me on Facebook. The first message was innocent enough, and I replied just to say that I’d miss the school and the students and thanked him for telling me I was a great teacher. Every message he sent after that I didn’t answer because I just didn’t feel comfortable engaging in social conversation on social media with a former student who was very young (he had just completed 8th grade). Even though I didn’t answer his messages, he continued to send them for months until eventually he sent me a message asking me for sex.

When I got this message, I was working at another school and I was terrified, not knowing where to turn. Should I talk to my current administration? Should I let my previous administration know (even though they didn’t seem to do anything with his brother)? I blocked him immediately, deleted the messages, and never told any administration for fear that I would get in trouble for something that I did wrong. I told very few people and still don’t tell people about it today, still for fear that I did something wrong and will get in trouble. While I definitely don’t know all the causes of the choices these brothers made, I do know that not only did I not have the tools to deal with these issues, but my administration didn’t seem to have them, either. In an industry where there is so much fear of the harm that adults can have on students (and validly so), there is little talk of the uncomfortable situations teachers can be put in by students and how teachers can deal with students who get a crush and start to go too far.

Thanks to Martha, Oman, Jen, Toni, Laura, and Anonymous for their contributions!

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