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Setting the Boundaries: Sexual Harassment in Schools

By: Dr. Edward Dragan
As originally Published by The School Administrator, December 2006
Tel: (609) 397-8989
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This article explores common situations regarding sexual harassment in the school setting. It also discusses exploitation of sexual power either by teachers or by students in an inappropriate relationship. Schools and its employees have a duty to train their students on their sexual harassment policies and to report any inappropriate behavior.

"Should I tell my principal that Bob said he was planning to sleep with one of his students during the class trip? I think I'll just keep out of it; that's their business."

"I'm in 10th grade and feel uncomfortable when Mrs. Atkins rubs my shoulders and gets real close to me, but I don't know what to do about it."

"I'm going to tell the principal that Mr. Hartis winked at me and rubbed up against me in the hallway. That should get him in trouble for giving me a D on my paper."

Common Situations

Scenarios such as these are not uncommon in junior and senior high schools. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 59 percent of secondary schools and 54 percent of middle schools report incidents of sexual harassment. Approximately 27 percent of these reports stem from the actions of school employees. About 22 percent of complaints name a teacher as responsible for the harassment.

In the 2003-2004 school year, the most recent for which national data is available, the parents of an 11 th grade student in Anaheim, Calif., sued their daughter's school district for emotional distress afrer they discovered their daughter had been engaged in a sexual relationship with a teacher since the 10th grade. The student had successfully concealed her relationship with the teacher and told no one about it.

While there was no evidence that anyone at the school actually knew of the sexual relationship, the federal court ruled in Steven F. v. Anaheim Union High School District there was evidence of "cluelessness." Ten teachers and the principal saw the teacher and the student in situations that ought to have raised their suspicions over the two years when the inappropriate relationship took place.

While the lawsuit initially was successful, the case was overturned on appeal, in part because the school district had required teachers to engage in extensive training on the issues of sexual harassment and interactions with students.

Employee Exploitation

Sexual misconduct is behavior of a sexual nature that may affect the personal integrity or security of either the employee or the student or the school environment. School administrators and staff, as well as students, need to be aware of personal interactions in the school setting that could lead to inappropriate sexual relationships and sexual harassment litigation. The 2003 court ruling on cluelessness shows that school staff seem to have a duty to be suspicious and investigate any suspicions they have.

Regardless of the age of the student, there is a recognized level of authority that a school employee wields that may be easily exploited by a school employee. Sometimes the student may act in a way that will sexually gratify the school employee and then exploit his or her sexual power over the school employee. In this situation a student who is precocious and sexually curious can target a school employee and take advantage of an adult staff member.

Parents place their children in the trust of school employees so that children willieam academically, socially and emotionally. School employees have a duty to live up to that expectation and to protect students from harm. A clear definition and understanding of behavioral boundaries and an understanding of how to respond when these boundaries are crossed will protect schools, school employees and students.

Employee behavior that might lead to sexual harassment charges includes:

  • tutoring a student in a secluded area or behind a closed door;
  • taking students home after school in private vehicles;
  • making personal telephone calls to students;
  • making suggestive comments to students or acting in a flirtatious manner;
  • inviting students to their home; and
  • touching students inappropriately and when they do not want to be touched.

School employees always must be aware of how student encounters might be viewed and interpreted by others. If a school employee observes a situation between another school employee and a student, he or she has the duty of following up according to policy and procedure. When in doubt about how a school employee's actions might be perceived, an administrator should err on the side of caution.

If a school employee is confronted with a student's inappropriate behavior, he or she has a responsibility and a duty to take direct steps to stop the behavior. Such behavior on the part of students includes: sending an employee an intimate message; making suggestive comments to the employee; making personal telephone calls to an employee; telling "off color" jokes within earshot of the employee; and inviting the employee to meet outside of school.

Proper Limits

The school employee should take the following proactive steps if any of the above behavior is encountered:

  • Stop the behavior and make the student aware of the school's sexual harassment policy;
  • Document the student's behavior;
  • Communicate the student's behavior to school officials and the student's parent; and
  • Notify his or her supervisor.

Set appropriate boundaries between students and school employees. Communicate those boundaries to the entire school community. Check to ensure everyone understands the boundaries and how to respond to inappropriate behavior. Take appropriate steps when boundaries are crossed.

These measures will help make schools safe places for learning, protect school employees and students from sexual harassment and protect the school and administrators from lawsuits.

Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.

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