Are You a Legal Professional?

Sexual Harassment at School

Is your school doing all it can to both prevent and take action against sexual harassment by students? Until recently, teachers and administrators often brushed off student harassment with an "eh, it's just kids being kids" attitude. That attitude has changed drastically.

After repeatedly being ignored regarding their daughter's complaints about being sexually harassed at school, one girl's parents finally got the attention of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the court held that obvious sexual harassment that is serious enough to affect a child's grades or make a child too afraid to enter certain places in the school denies that student her right to equal protection in school programs under Title IX.

If a parent brings a case against a school and wins, the school district can be forced to protect their child from sexual harassment. The student will probably even be compensated for damages that result from the school's failure to take appropriate action.

Title IX Overview

Title IX was originally enacted to prevent publicly funded schools from engaging in discrimination based on sex. Many people know about Title IX because of its positive effects on the advancement of women's athletics. It also shows up in employment law by protecting employees from sex discrimination in decisions regarding hiring, tenure, salary, and promotions. Since Davis, the Supreme Court has extended the scope of Title IX to protect students against student-to-student sexual harassment.

The Circumstances That Led Up to the Davis Ruling

There has not yet been a trial on the Davis claim. The Supreme Court simply said that Title IX applies to situations such as those outlined in the claim. So, what led up to this ruling?

The plaintiff's 11-year-old daughter had always been an excellent student. She made good grades, was relatively active, and seemed like an overall happy child. Then, she began to complain about a boy harassing her. She told her parents that the boy made crude comments to her about wanting to get into bed with her; would rub up against her in the hallway; touched her breasts and genital area; and chased her. This didn't just happen all in one day. These types of behaviors were repeated day after day.

The girl made complaints to her teachers, who dismissed her concerns and failed to even talk to the boy who harassed her. Even her mother got involved, calling the teachers and the principal to no avail. The principal did not investigate, but instead asked the mother why none of the other children had made complaints.

It wasn't until the mother had been complaining for three months that she was able to even get her daughter's seat changed so that she and the boy were not sitting next to each other in class. This little girl was not the only one who was ignored. But when a group of other students addressed their harassment complaints to a teacher, they were not even allowed to speak to the principal.

Perhaps the teachers of the school did not know what to do. After all, there was no training or protocol on how to handle sexual harassment at school. The school district did not even have a policy guiding teachers on what to do in such cases. Eventually, the little girl grew depressed. She dreaded going to school, feared going into the gym or bathroom at school, and refused to participate in school activities. Her once excellent grades dropped tremendously. She even wrote a suicide note.

Harassment vs. School-Yard Bullying

It is true that being teased is a normal part of growing up. Sexual harassment at school is different, however. It is important that both teachers and parents know how to make the distinction.

Sexual harassment refers to repetitive unwanted sexual advances. The school district is liable for violating Title IX if it fails to take reasonable action against serious, long-term student-to-student sexual harassment that the school employees knew about. The Supreme Court insisted on making this distinction in order to protect school districts from becoming liable for typical school-yard bullying. Occasional name-calling, pushing and shoving, and physical fights are not instances that would constitute a Title IX violation.

Instead, the Supreme Court is more interested in protecting students from continuous and offensive behavior that interferes with the students' participation in their school lives. This can include things like aggressive sexual remarks made daily; behavior or threats that prevent students from using part of the school building; a pattern of repeated threats, abusive touching, or chasing; and abusive harassment of students identified as gay, regardless of whether they actually are.

The Supreme Court has interpreted Title IX in such a way that it is actually easy for school districts to stay out of trouble. As long as the school complies with the law by making reasonable efforts to stop the harassment after a complaint is made, the school is probably not liable -- even if the harassment continues.

Tips for Parents of Sexually Harassed Kids

If you think your child is experiencing sexual harassment at school, you should first ask them for information. Get as many details as possible: who is involved; what they are doing; when and how often; and where. Ask if your child has told any authority figure and what that figure did or said. Be sure to get a copy of the school's sexual harassment policy and find out if the school faculty is familiar with the policy. Then, talk to the appropriate faculty member with the policy in hand, and insist that the policy be followed.

If you are not taken seriously, or no action is taken, go to the principal. Hand the principal a written report of everything that has happened, including what the particular faculty member did or did not do. Emphasize the fact that the sexual harassment is interfering with your student's school work. Close the report with a demand for prompt and corrective action.

Sample Letter

Dear Principal Smith,

My daughter, Sierra, is in Mr. Taylor's 5th grade class and has expressed to me that she is suffering from sexual harassment at school. Apparently, another student in her class has been harassing her with sexually inappropriate conduct. I would rather wait and tell you his name in private. The specific acts of harassment he has engaged in include:

  • Threatening to rape her
  • Chasing her down the hallways
  • Spying on her in the bathroom
  • Sending her sexually obscene notes
  • Telling her friends that he wants to "prong" her

This extremely inappropriate conduct began in September of this year. Sierra has repeatedly insisted that the boy stop and has even, numerous times, told Mr. Taylor, who does nothing. The student even sits next to Sierra in class, and Mr. Taylor refuses to allow Sierra to move seats.

This sexual harassment at school has seriously affected my daughter's ability to perform at school. She never wants to go to school, or participate in sports or music. As you may know, she has been on the honor roll consistently since the first grade. Her grades have slipped to a "C" average. Most upsetting, she has fallen into a sad and moody state. I am deeply concerned for her.

I am leaving this note to notify you that I would like to meet with you at your earliest convenience. I would like to discuss with you what disciplinary action you plan to take to alleviate the harassment. I can be reached on my cell phone at 555-5252.

Sincerely,

Concerned Parent

What to Do If the Principal Does Nothing

If you still don't get anywhere, start moving up the ladder. Go to the school superintendent. Address this the same way you approached your principal and write it all down in a letter, but talk to the superintendent directly. Insist that the superintendent take immediate action to alleviate the problem.

In case that still gets you nowhere, go to the school board. You may want to bring members of the PTA with you to emphasize the safety concern for all of the children. Keep in mind the nature of a sexual harassment claim against a child, and be sensitive to that. You don't want to appear as though you are attacking or defaming the child. Informing the personnel of the details of the problem is enough. You can leave names out of it until it is asked of you.

Other personnel appropriate to contact include the state board of education, your local government representative, or even the local paper. It is important to remember however, if you contact the paper, to leave names out in order to avoid a defamation suit.

How Schools Should Approach Sexual Harassment at School

Schools should compose and print a handbook that includes:

  • A clear sexual harassment at school policy
  • Rules and remedies
  • What kinds of behaviors constitute sexual harassment
  • A statement to students that sexual harassment is illegal and will not be tolerated
  • A statement that will help kids understand what to do if they suffer from sexual harassment at school

If your child's school does not have a sexual harassment policy in place, insist that they draft one. You could even offer to get a group of parents, teachers, and students together to form the policy. Once it is drafted, the school needs to make a commitment to continuously educate the faculty and students on the policy to ensure it is enforced and to help everyone understand what sexual harassment is and is not.

Next Steps
Contact a qualified education attorney to help you
navigate education rights and laws.
(e.g., Chicago, IL or 60611)

Help Me Find a Do-It-Yourself Solution