What Educators Must Know About School Districts and Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is a serious and unfortunately commonplace issue that school districts face. As a teacher, it’s imperative that you know what falls under the category of sexual harassment and how your district handles the issue when it comes up.

According to a 2011 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), around 50% of U.S. students in seventh through twelfth grade experienced sexual harassment. It’s interesting to note that most cases involved student-to-student harassment, as opposed to teacher-to-student harassment. Females were in a worse position, with 56% reporting that they had faced sexual harassment; with boys, it was 40%. The nature of harassment inflicted on female students included unwanted physical attention and touching. For male students, the challenging of other boys’ sexual orientation was a common form of sexual harassment.

Deciding what falls under the label of sexual harassment and what doesn’t is very subjective, but it may be considered generally to be unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that disrupts a person’s life. Because of the ambiguity and variety of definitions, schools’ responses differ. For example, a 6-year old boy was suspended for sexual harassment in North Carolina in 1996 for kissing a female classmate on the cheek. But there are more serious cases such as Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, in which a male fifth grader started groping a female classmate with the stated intention of sleeping with her. The school failed to take any action against him despite repeated complaints from parents.

The problem of sexual harassment in schools is persistent. Schools can act more responsibly on the issue by formulating proper and specific sexual harassment policies and providing special training programs for teachers, students, and other administrative staff. Seeking the support of parents is also beneficial. The challenges around implementing sexual harassment policies are made even more difficult because students shy away from reporting incidents, for fear of suffering additional consequences or being ridiculed.

The solution is to create a safe environment in the school so that such instances of harassments simply do not take place and the students feel secure, although this is often easier said than done.

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