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Student Well-Being Commentary

Public/Private Rules

By Nan Stein — February 10, 1999 3 min read
Rather than making sexual harassment more complicated than it is, school personnel ought to articulate and enforce rules that students understand.

On one side of the street, the U.S. Senate is trying the president. On the other side of the street, the U.S. Su-preme Court is hearing a case about a school’s responsibility to prevent sexual harassment between students. The chief justice of the United States goes back and forth between these two buildings. And, down the street, at the Library of Congress, there is an exhibit of the private papers of Sigmund Freud, the pre-eminent theoretician of the unconscious and writer on the role of sex in everyday life.

Putting aside all this powerful symbolism of proximity and timing, much is at stake on both sides of the street in the nation’s capital.

The case before the Supreme Court, Davis v. Monroe County, Ga., School District, is in part about school rules. (“Court Weighs Harassment by Students, Jan 20, 1999.) Schools are the embodiment of rules; sometimes it seems as if they exist primarily to make rules. There are rules about when to speak, when bathrooms may be used, when and where to eat, when to move through the halls, which courses may be taken, what clothes may be worn, and what grades must be earned in order to graduate and even to play on sports teams. When rules are broken, there are detentions, parent meetings, lectures in the principal’s office, second chances, punishments, suspensions--grades can be lowered, and the future beyond school is at stake.

I like to think of sexual harassment as I do about food fights--they aren’t allowed. Both are matters of establishing and then enforcing expectations about appropriate school conduct. It’s really quite simple. When a prank as benign as a food fight in the school cafeteria breaks out, school personnel react quickly and rush in to break it up, and deliver repercussions to those involved.

So, my question has always been, why don’t school personnel react as vigilantly to incidents of unwanted sexual touching? Surely, more is at stake then than during food fights. Rather than making sexual harassment more complicated than it is, school personnel ought to articulate and enforce rules that students understand, such as NO touching, and not necessarily get into labeling it as sexual harassment.

But this case is not merely about school discipline, but rather about democracy and equal protection under the law. It is not only about self-restraint (a boy repeatedly groping and grabbing a girl, and her teacher’s refusal to intervene, or even to move her assigned seat in class, after both she and her mother had complained), but also about school safety and maintaining an atmosphere for learning.

We all want our schools to prepare students to participate in our democracy. If school personnel permit some students, or even one, to harass another student, they are eroding democracy and the sanctuary of safety that schools must provide in order to ensure equal educational opportunity for all students. In addition, it’s not only the target of the harassment who feels the consequences. There are also deleterious effects for the bystanders and witnesses. Trust in school diminishes, and students begin to wonder if they will be next and who will protect them if not the adults in the schools. If sexual harassment is allowed to exist in schools, then schools may in fact be subverting the democracy rather than preparing children to believe in it and participate in it.

There’s a lot at stake on both sides of the street in Washington, and there’s a deep connection between the events in the Senate and in the Supreme Court. It’s all about the democracy and where we are headed, and who’s going to believe in that democracy enough to be there to participate in it.

Nan Stein is a senior research scientist at Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women in Wellesley, Mass. Her book on sexual harassment in K-12 schools will be published in the fall by Teachers College Press.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as Public/Private Rules

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