Paradigm of Respect

Toward a Paradigm of Respect and Responsibility: Training Students in Sexual Harassment Awareness

From the McGrath Employment Newsletter, Winter 1999 issue

One of the key components in implementing a comprehensive sexual harassment awareness and prevention program is student training. Providing such training not only reduces your district’s risk of liability, but is a key factor in the timely detection and investigation of complaints and ultimately in eradicating incidents of sexual harassment from the school environment.

Sexual harassment’s entrance into the national spotlight has made educators aware of the duty to train students, and yet the issues involved–class time, parental permission, legal standards, and, of course, the sensitive nature of the subject itself–can be daunting. What to do? This article gives you guidance in designing and implementing sexual harassment curricula for students in your district.

Duty to train
School districts have a duty to provide ongoing education and inservice which go beyond perfunctory treatment of sexual harassment and instead sensitize employees and students to problems of harassment. The purpose of such a program is to educate and, where necessary, “clean up” past practices to transform the school culture. To accomplish this it is necessary to have students recognize the result and consequences of unhealthy sexual behaviors and attitudes. Students should know that they have a right to attend school in settings that are free from sexual harassment. They must know how to assess and respond to sexual harassment, including the procedure for filing a complaint.

Who do I train?
Train every student in your district from preschool on up. Train all district personnel both certificated and classified, full and part time, and train parents and guardians. Notify parents well in advance and invite them to view any videos or curriculum materials. Educate them on the issues, including their children’s right to a safe, respectful school environment.

Training materials and curricula are available for all grade levels. It is important to start at the earliest level. Behaviors including hitting, shoving, name calling, invasion of personal space and gender-based bullying have been identified as precursors to actionable sexual harassment and violence. Children must be sensitized to the hurtful nature of this behavior such that they not only act responsibly themselves but also know how to act when they observe or receive such treatment. [Link underline to EFV Video page]

How much training is sufficient?
At the middle and high school level, we recommend devoting at least one assembly and two full class periods a year on the subject of sexual harassment and conducting ongoing campaigns that emphasize and reward respect and responsibility within the student community. A sexual harassment curriculum can be appropriately incorporated into a course of study in social sciences, sociology, psychology, human sexuality, vocational education, health education, family life, or other related subject areas. [Link underline to SH:MTR Video page]

For elementary age students, we recommend focusing on respect and responsibility, on training students to recognize and report bullying, teasing, and violence. Several elementary school districts report success with incorporating this training into school wide campaigns on respect. Devil’s Lake Public Schools in North Dakota has received statewide recognition for its elementary school campaign which includes regular student-designed assemblies on dignity, trust, and respect, a respect cheer and song, daily class discussions, video training, and the use of puppets (in grades K-2) to reinforce the lessons.

Who should conduct the training?
Certified McGrath Trainer, Peggy Weeks, who has trained over 10,000 students in sexual harassment awareness in her capacity as Gender Equity Program Director for the Nebraska DOE, offers the following questions to consider: “Who do the kids trust? In high schools it is often prudent to bring in a trainer who doesn’t know the kids as well but is experienced with this audience. How comfortable is the trainer with sexual harassment as a topic? This is sensitive material and it must be delivered by someone who is at home talking about sex and who has worked through his or her own personal reactions to the topic. Sometimes team teaching works well–pairing a man and woman–but only if they are very comfortable with each other. ”

How do we get the kids to take this seriously?
According to Ms. Weeks, “The reason you focus on students is because students control the hidden culture of a school. This culture drives the atmosphere of the school. As adults, we see only 10% of what goes on, the overt behaviors. There are social leaders in the classes–those who by their very presence set the tenor of a class–not necessarily the most popular kids. If a social leader decides that something’s not OK, social change will occur.”

Phyllis Morgan, Assistant Superintendent at St. Tammany Parish Schools in New Orleans, LA, reports that since they implemented student training on high school campuses, the students have been negotiating about what behavior is considered “flirting” and what constitutes sexual harassment.

How do we gain their attention?
“You contextualize the training as pertaining to student civil rights,” says Ms. Weeks. “This forestalls a lot of the defensive behavior the topic may elicit. I say, ‘You have a right to be here. You have a right to feel safe. Sexual harassment can interfere with those rights.’

Won’t student training increase complaints?
If you train students in how to lodge a complaint and they feel they will be protected from retaliation, your complaints should increase. The increase in complaints is not a function of an increase in incidence but rather an increase in the awareness of existing behavior.

The City of Niagara Falls School District began an aggressive campaign of student training about three years ago. McGrath Trainer Bill Berard, former attorney for the district, reports that “initially the number of complaints increased while the percentage of serious complaints decreased. After three years, the district now has an overall decrease in the number of complaints.”

“You want complaints. And you want them here, at home, not from OCR,” says Peggy Weeks. “Train your students. They’re your best access to early detection and proper investigation.”

What about remedial training for student offenders?
We recommend that you develop a plan for educating student offenders. Coleen Gordin of Bear River High School in Garland, Utah, says that she created a plan around the student training videos from the McGrath Sexual Harassment Minimize the Risk series. The videos are shown in all health classes, and the school has an 11-Step Educational Plan that is implemented when a student is accused of sexual harassment.

Where can I get a format for a comprehensive sexual harassment policy?
McGrath Systems publishes a sample sexual harassment policy in our student curriculum. To request a copy of the policy, contact us.

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