When It Comes to Sexual Harassment, Schools Are Not Immune
But experts say sexual misconduct between adults may be less prevalent in K-12
Early in Kelly Wickham Hurst’s teaching career, some of her colleagues warned her about an older male coworker. He came in early and sometimes cornered women, telling inappropriate jokes that at times led to uncomfortable physical contact he brushed off as accidental, they said.
The Springfield, Ill., middle school had a wave of young, newly hired female teachers that year, and they believed its administration didn’t take their concerns about the man seriously, Hurst said.
“I paid attention to it but I thought he’d never do this to me,” said Hurst, who retired after 23 years and founded an advocacy group called Being Black at School.
Then one day, she got to school before sunrise to arrange desks in her classroom. The older teacher was there, and he followed her around, trying to engage her in conversation. As he got closer, Hurst cracked a joke that she knew karate, a lie she made up on the spot. He got the message, she said.
“I wanted him to know that I was dangerous,” Hurst said. “I wanted him to know that if he put his hands on me that I would strike back physically.”
As a cascade of sexual harassment and assault allegations have come out publicly in recent weeks against high-profile men in politics, entertainment, and media, women in fields like customer service, retail, and education have raised a flag to say that their industries are not immune from such problems, though the people who’ve been accused are far less well known.
As women everywhere are reflecting on their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault, school administrators should be mindful of whether they are creating climates where employees feel safe and comfortable reporting problems, lawyers who specialize in sexual harassment cases said.
Hurst shared her story on Twitter after thousands of women responded to allegations against film producer Harvey Weinstein by sharing messages on social media with the hashtag #metoo, a phrase first used by women’s advocate Tarana Burke to demonstrate how many women have faced sexual abuse and harassment.
“There was such an outpouring of stories, and I think that a lot of what I was hearing from women was so similar to what I’ve experienced myself,” Hurst said.
Some common themes in women’s stories from other industries can also play out in schools.
Warnings of problematic behavior are sometimes shared through “whisper networks,” and young women employees who are adjusting to workplace norms may be hesitant to identify and report harassment in their first years on the job, she said.
Attorneys and researchers who study sexual harassment say the misconduct is likely less common among adults who work in K-12 education than in some fields—such as the restaurant industry—where employees work long, physically exhausting jobs in close quarters.
Teachers often work apart from other adults for much of the day, and public schools employ more women than other fields. The average U.S. teacher is a 42-year-old white woman and more than half of school principals are women, federal data show.
There’s little comparative data on rates of sexual harassment across industries, largely because incidents don’t always result in formal complaints, and complaints may be made to various agencies at local, state, and federal levels.
But a sampling of recent headlines shows that schools around the country have dealt with sexual harassment complaints, often involving allegations against district-level administrators and principals.
Four teachers brought federal civil rights claims against an elementary school principal and the school district in Albany, N.Y., in 2014, claiming the school system did nothing to stop the principal’s frequent harassment. The district later settled the case without claiming any wrongdoing.
In addition to a financial settlement, the Iron County, Utah district committed to holding annual sexual-harassment training in an agreement earlier this year after eight female employees sued, claiming a male employee who supervised them had made inappropriate comments and advances, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported.
Administrators in the school where the women worked brushed off the complaints and suggested they were “asking for it” by the clothing they wore, the federal complaint said, according to the newspaper.
An assistant principal at a Palo Alto, Calif., high school had amassed 25 sexual-harassment allegations about the principal before she reported the complaints to the district, the Palo Alto Daily Post reported last March.
The reports, made by students and teachers who witnessed or were subject to the principal’s behavior, ranged from “sexual comments being made to unwelcome hugs and touching,” a federal investigation found.
The U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights uncovered the backlog of allegations as part of a larger investigation into student complaints at two high schools in Palo Alto Unified, the paper reported.
In an agreement with the federal agency, the district committed to intensive staff training on sexual-harassment prevention and response. Neither the principal nor the assistant principal still works in the school.
There’s far more research on sexual abuse of students by adults and peers in schools—a major concern in recent years—than there is about sexual harassment between adult educators.
A 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office found that schools weren’t doing enough to track instances of sexual misconduct against students, which can lead other districts to hire offending teachers, unaware of their behavior.
The same “boundary crossing behavior” that leads adults in schools to make inappropriate comments and sexual advances toward their peers is often present in schools where teachers have sexually abused students, said Carol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches sexual misconduct by educators.
“That sexualized climate and behavior does spread between students and adults,” she said.
To promote a healthy environment, school administrators should have clear policies on sexual misconduct, and they should train on those policies regularly, Shakeshaft said.
In cases when a complaint is made, administrators can send out a general reminder of those policies without violating the privacy of the accused or the accuser, she said.
“You point [the policies] out so that people don’t have the sense that there’s not any kind of response to the issue,” Shakeshaft said.
Such policies may help encourage reluctant employees to report problematic behavior, said Kathleen Conn, a former educator who now works as an attorney and educational consultant.
Young, untenured teachers may have a general sense of powerlessness at work as they navigate demands from administrators, parents, students, and their peers, she said.
“It’s kind of a set up for trying to fit in and not make waves” that may lead teachers to avoid reporting harassment, especially in situations that fall into a gray area in their minds, Conn said.
Other types of district policies can protect employees from retaliation after they complain about sexual harassment, particularly when those allegations involve supervisors, said Tim Russ, an official with the Michigan Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union.
The Kalamazoo, Mich., district recently placed a high school principal on paid administrative leave after a female employee filed a federal lawsuit claiming he’d created a “hostile work environment.”
When teachers make such complaints about supervisors who are responsible for reviewing their employment, there should be an “automatic institutional control” that shifts that employee to a different supervisor to avoid possible retaliation, Russ said.
The district told the Kalamazoo Gazette that it is updating its hiring processes after the newspaper found the principal had previously had his educator license revoked in Florida after he engaged in a “pattern of sexual harassment of female teachers and staff at his school.”
Under state law, Michigan schools are required to call educators’ previous employers to screen for misconduct complaints, but only in-state schools are required to provide a thorough response, Russ said.
The union hears a small number of sexual-misconduct complaints overall, he said.
And that may be in part because more women have taken roles in school and district leadership over time, Russ said.
Hurst, the former Illinois teacher, said bolder young teachers are also changing the culture by calling out bad behavior.
She hopes the attention given to the issue will lead to changes for women in all industries.
“I think the collective strength of our voices is at a peak moment,” she said. “It’s sort of this groundswell.”
Vol. 37, Issue 14, Pages 1, 12Published in Print: November 29, 2017, as Schools Not Immune From Harassment