Sexual harassment in schools is the unwanted and unwelcomed behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with one’s right to receive an equal educational opportunity. It is no longer a contested phenomenon. Its existence has been acknowledged by the U.S. Supreme Court, by scientific surveys, and by countless testimonials from adults, children, and adolescents, whether as targets of harassment or as witnesses and bystanders. Peer-to-peer sexual harassment is rampant in elementary and secondary schools, characterized as a normal stage in healthy American adolescent development or identified as flirting.
Sexual harassment in schools happens in full view of others with, in general, boys harassing girls with impunity while other people (including school employees) watch. Examples of sexual harassment that happen in public in school include bra snapping, groping at bodies, and pulling at or removing clothing; circulating sexually degrading lists; writing nasty, personalized graffiti on bathroom walls; performing sexualized jokes, taunts, and skits that mock girls’ bodies at school-sponsored assemblies or during sporting events; and outright physical assault and rape.
A whole-school approach to eradicate sexual harassment and to comply with federal civil rights in education laws includes ongoing, age-appropriate curriculum, staff and student training, and incremental disciplinary policies.
Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and is illegal under Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 and under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964, amended 1972). Sexual harassment can contaminate the whole school environment, and its reach may embrace more than the immediate and intended target(s), such as innocent witnesses and bystanders.
The dilemma facing victims of sexual harassment is how to avoid the upsetting and degrading incidents that have become acceptable, ordinary, and public. What happens in public, if not interrupted, becomes normalized and acceptable over time. Moreover, students expect that if something scary, unpleasant, or illegal is happening in school, especially if it occurs in public, someone with authority will intervene to stop it, help out, or at least believe the victim afterwards. Yet sexual harassment seems for the most part to proceed mostly without adult intervention, thereby exacerbating and broadening its reach. In schools, sexual harassment is tenacious, pervasive, and operates as a kind of gendered violence.
U.S. Supreme Court Decisions
The educational establishment paid little attention to the subject of sexual harassment in K–12 schools until it was propelled into the national consciousness in February 1992 and again in May 1999. In the 1992 case, Franklin v. Gwinnett County (Georgia) Public Schools, a unanimous ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court found that schools could incur financial liability for sexual harassment and other violations of federal law Title IX. This case involved a female student who had sexual relations with her teacher on school grounds multiple times and the liability that the school district had for supervising his conduct. Although sexual harassment in K–12 schools had not been widely acknowledged prior to this 1992 Supreme Court decision, some state-level education agencies and feminists had written about this problem as early as 1979.
In May 1999, the Supreme Court ruled again on sexual harassment in school in Davis v. Monroe County (GA) Board of Education. This case involved sexual harassment that a fifth-grade girl (Davis) was receiving from a fifth-grade boy in her class. When she complained about the boy’s conduct to her teachers and principal, they failed to take any action to remedy the harassment. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court ruled that schools are indeed liable for student-to-student sexual harassment when they know about the harassment and fail to stop it.
The existence of peer-to-peer sexual harassment in K–12 schools has been documented for decades. Nearly 30 years after the 1972 passage of federal law Title IX, a scientific study conducted in 2000–2001 found rampant evidence of sexual harassment in school. Students reported that school personnel behaved in sexually harassing ways and/or that the adults did not intervene when they saw or received reports of sexual harassment.
In the latter of two scientific surveys about sexual harassment in schools that the American Association of University Women (AAUW) along with the Harris polling firm conducted, the results in 2001 showed that among 2,064 students in Grades 8–11, sexual harassment was widespread in schools, with 83% of girls and 79% of boys indicating that they had been sexually harassed. Thirty percent of the girls and 24% of the boys reported that they were sexually harassed often. As compared to the 1993 AAUW survey on sexual harassment among 8th–11th graders, the results from 2001 showed an increase both in awareness and in incidents of sexual harassment, yet students in 2001 had come to accept sexual harassment as a fact of life in schools.
Danger zones differ for girls and boys. Girls are more likely than boys to experience nonphysical harassment in the classroom (62% vs. 49%) and halls (72% vs. 56%). A higher percentage of boys experience nonphysical harassment in the locker room (28% vs. 15%) and restroom (15% vs. 9%). The pattern is similar for physical sexual harassment. Sixty-six percent of girls, compared to 54% of boys, experience physical harassment in the classroom, and 77% of girls, but only 63% of boys, experience it in the halls. Twenty-six percent of boys compared to 15% of girls experience physical sexual harassment in the locker room. Students also reported that they rarely tell school officials about the sexual harassment that they experience. Only 11% of students who have experienced physical sexual harassment tell a teacher, and 9% tell another school employee. On the other hand, students are more likely to tell a friend (67%) or a relative (22%), and 20% tell no one.
- American Association of University Women. (1993). Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America’s schools. Washington, DC: Author.
- American Association of University Women Foundation & Harris Interactive. (2001). Hostile hallways II: Bullying, teasing and sexual harassment in school. Washington, DC: Harris Interactive.
- Davis v. Monroe County (GA) Board of Education, 526 S. 629 (1999).
- Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 112 S. Ct. 1028 (1992).
- Stein, N. (1995). Sexual harassment in K–12 schools: The public performance of gendered violence. Harvard Educational Review, 65, 145–162.
- Stein, N. (1999). Classrooms and courtrooms: Facing sexual harassment in K-12 schools. New York: Teachers College Press.
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