Expensive, Illegal and Wrong
Expensive, Illegal and Wrong: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools
(Kappan Special Report)
By Elaine Yaffe
Reprinted with permission from Phi Delta Kappan magazine, November 1995 issue.
Not so long ago, it was seen as merely part of the perennial battle of the sexes – part of the mating game that begins as soon as girls and boys realize they are different from one another. Behavior that started in schoolyards with jingles – “I see London, I see France, I see Susie’s underpants” – moved into classrooms where boys put pigtails in inkwells. The process moved inexorably to wolf whistles, whispered come-ons at office Xerox machines, ogling on the street, pinching on public buses – and more. Girls and women put up with it because they didn’t want to risk antagonizing their tormenters. Sometimes they couldn’t afford to jeopardize their jobs or marriages, but more often they could see no alternative. It was just the way things were.
Not any more. Such behavior now has an ugly name: sexual harassment. And it’s illegal.
It might seem as if all this harassment began just recently, with such big-ticket, front-page cases as Tailhook, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, and the charges made against Sen. Robert Packwood. But actually, sexual harassment is not a new problem – at least not for educational institutions. “It has existed, perhaps, as long as there have been schools” according to the Educators Guide to Controlling sexual Harassment. But it remained a hidden issue, in part, because there was no name for the behavior.”(1)
The question of name is important. The language we use to describe behavior both reflects and affects how serious we perceive that behavior to be. In response to a survey, one student wrote that she didn’t know how anyone could take seriously what had happened to her because she didn’t know what to call it. As late as 1987, when the School of Education at the University of Michigan conducted a study in 15 Michigan school districts, students reported behavior they found troubling – uninvited touching from other students, sexual innuendoes, rude and wounding remarks when they participated in classes not usually frequented by others of their gender – but they had no name for such behaviors. Eleanor Linn, senior associate director of programs for educational opportunity in the School of Education at the University of Michigan, deceiving requests from guidance counselors in the early 1980s asking for materials on this nameless topic, which they said was “not as bad as rape, but people still suffer.” (All quotations that are not footnoted come from personal interviews conducted by the author.)
For a long time this vagueness prevented most people from understanding the full implications of what was happening. Schools tended to see it as “inappropriate behavior.” Kids called it “teasing,” “horseplay,” “flirting.” Adults explained it away as the inevitable result of raging hormones. Normal, natural, unalterable.
Though many people still take refuge behind these euphemisms, the situation today is almost completely reversed. The big catalyst for this change has been the law. Schools can no longer dismiss the problem as they did in the past, because the law now says that unequal educational opportunity results from sexual harassment, and that makes it a form of discrimination. Such behavior denies targets of harassment their full educational opportunities. It restricts their access to classes, undermines their self-confidence, and makes them less able to participate.
There have been legal injunctions against sexual misconduct on the books since Reconstruction, when Congress passed the Civil Rights Acts of 1871 as a mechanism for enforcing the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of “life, liberty, and property.” The courts have interpreted “liberty” to mean that a student has a constitutional right to “bodily integrity.” But these injunctions remained largely unused until the idea of “sexual harassment” began to take shape in the national consciousness.
Most writers on this topic agree that it was women, some time in the late 1960s or early 1970s, who brought this development about. Talking informally among themselves in consciousness-raising groups and comparing notes, they gradually realized that there was a uniformity to their experiences. They came to see that these weren’t isolated instances, but part of a larger societal phenomenon with political significance.
In recent years feminists have carried the argument even further. They maintain that sexual harassment is part of a pattern of male persecution of females; it begins, they say, in what may appear to be innocuous childish behavior, but, if left uncorrected, it escalates into continuous oppression of women. In this view, statistics that show an alarming number of sexual assaults in our country prove how deep-rooted the problem is.
As public awareness of the problem grew, the law evolved as well. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, religion, or national origin.(2) In 1980 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the agency responsible for implementing title VII, issued guidelines that established criteria for determining what forms of conduct constitute sexual harassment. Two distinct forms were recognized: quid pro quo, in which a person’s hiring, promotion, or wages are conditioned on sexual favors, and “hostile environment,” in which pervasive, intrusive, unwelcome behavior interferes with a person’s job performance.
Significantly, the guidelines established that the key to determining whether or not sexual conduct was illegal was whether it was “unwelcome.”(3) “Most experts agree,” writes Bernadette Marczely, an education professor at Cleveland State University, “that sexual harassment is defined by the victim; if an individual finds the comments or physical contact to be unwelcome, then it is harassment, and sexual harassment is a continuum of unwanted behaviors ranging from spoken or written comments and stares to actual physical assault and attempted rape.”(4)
Though Title VII does not specifically refer to schools – it prohibits discrimination only in the workplace – it is relevant for educators because the courts have been accepting these EEOC guidelines as the legal definition of sexual harassment everywhere. “In the eyes of the law,” Marczely argues in the journal Clearing House, “administrators, teachers, and other supervisory school personnel are equated with employers in that their positions give them the kind of control that creates the opportunity for harassment and the responsibility for redressing it.”(5)
The courts have justified drawing these parallels by maintaining that Title VII applies to educational institutions through Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX states, in part, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Most people think of Title IX as the law under which women athletes must have access to sports equipment and facilities equal to those provided for men. But this law is increasingly being used in the far more sensitive areas of relationships between teachers and students and between students and their peers.
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Education, the agency that enforces Title IX, has not yet issued official guidelines in this area. But on 31 August 1981 it took another important step toward clarifying the responsibility of schools in cases of sexual harassment. The OCR issued a memorandum specifying that for institutions to be in compliance they must formulate and publish a policy opposing sexual harassment, a grievance procedure that is available to complainants, and procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of complaints.(6)
Federal law is mirrored in the laws of several states. In some, such as Minnesota, which led the way with this effort, all schools are required to have specific policies condemning sexual harassment. Other states, such as Massachusetts, California, and Colorado, forbid harassment but don’t mandate that all districts establish their own policies. Another difference in various state laws has to do with the age of children covered by the law. In Minnesota, even kindergartners can be expelled for repeated acts of sexual harassment. In California, whose law went into effect in 1993, only children from fourth grade up are covered.
As in so many areas surrounding this issue, some opposed California’s law because it went too far, others, because it didn’t go far enough. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National PTA said that principals already had the authority to discipline students who commit obscene acts, injure classmates, or use profanity. Having separate laws covering sexual harassment was unnecessary and confusing. On the other hand, Sue Sattel, who is a gender equity specialist in the Minnesota Department of Education thinks that it sends a very wrong message to exempt children in kindergarten through third grade. Title IX protects kids from kindergarten through college,” she says. “I’m not sure you can exempt anyone.”
Many of these laws have been firmly in place for some time, but, as Mary Jo McGrath, a CaIifornia lawyer who has represented school districts for 18 years, says, “They finally have some teeth.” Those teeth were sharpened in the early 1990s by a dramatic increase in the number of complaints going before the courts. Students at all grade levels, from graduating high school seniors to elementary students, are bringing complaints.
One of the most common areas of complaint involves sexual harassment of students by other students and the extent to which school districts are liable for those behaviors. There have been some recent settlements in Minnesota that help to define the direction the law is taking and that illustrate a number of important issues.
The youngest complainant in such a case was 6-year-old Cheltzie Hentz of Eden Prairie, a suburb of Minneapolis. Her complaint was the first for an elementary school student that involved harassment by other elementary school students.
Both the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and the federal OCR found that, during the 1991-92 school year, boys as young as 6 and as old as 13 harassed Cheltzie – and, as it turned out, several other children as well – primarily on the school bus. They taunted Cheltzie about parts of her body and made explicit suggestions that she have oral sex with her father. The district’s mistake, according to the OCR, was not identifying such behavior as sexual harassment. Even though the district had a policy in place opposing sexual harassment, the district mistakenly determined that, with children this young, such taunting was only misbehavior – a disciplinary matter, not a matter calling for compliance with the law. OCR ruled that there was no question that Cheltzie, young as she was, understood that “the language and conduct being used were expressions of hostiIity” based on her gender.
Two other Minnesota cases also charted important legal ground. Katy Lyle, a student at Central High School in Duluth, found out soon after she entered high school, at the beginning of her sophomore year, that there were obscene remarks about her scrawled on the walls of the boys, rest room: “Katy Lyle sucked my …. after she sucked my dog’s …… Katy Lyle is a slut.” The particular spot in the bathroom came to be known as the “Katy stall.” She and her parents asked repeatedly – 16 times – to have the offending graffiti removed. Yet, despite being reassured continually that it would be, it was still there 18 months later, at the start of Katy’s senior year. The school offered many excuses – among them that “graffiti was considered a building maintenance problem”, and that the school had funds to paint only every two years.
It wasn’t until after Katy’s parents filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights that the walls were finally painted. The school never found out who put the messages there, but Katy could identify the boys on the school bus who greeted her each morning with such delightful welcomes as, “Are you really as good as they say?” or “Oh, Katy, do me.” Katy went to three different guidance counselors and finally to the principal. “He looked at me funny” she wrote later, “and his attitude was, “where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Graffiti is a fact of life.'”(7)
In 1991 Katy won a settlement from the school district for $15,000. In addition, the district agreed to post a sexual harassment policy and to remove graffiti daily.
In yet another important case, Jill Olson, a 1990 graduate of Chaska High School in Minnesota, brought a multipronged complaint against her district for creating a hostile, environment that interfered with her education. She charged that, in 1989, students had been permitted to put on a skit in which a male character had a mirror on his shoe for the express purpose of looking up the dress of a female character who said, “Oh, don’t look up my dress. I don’t have any panties on.” Every year this same school held a “mistletoe madness” lip-synch contest during which some “teen gals were dressed in lingerie (teddies) and sang a song titled, Sex Shooter’ while making undulating movements with their bodies in response to the male students in the audience making catcalls and sexual comments.”(8) In addition, although Jill specifically asked a teacher to compel a male student to remove a photograph from Playboy magazine from the front of his folder, the teacher did not do so.
As disturbing as all these incidents were, the focus of Jill’s complaint was her presence on a list, circulated by boys at her school, of the “25 most f…able girls.” The list, described by the school’s dean and principal as “vile,” contained paragraphs describing the girls, bodies and what they were particularly adept at sexually – all made up.
Perhaps the saddest part of the story is that 24 of the girls had no objection to the list – or at least none they were willing to go public with. Some even jockeyed with one another for higher spots.
In defending themselves against these accusations, school officials maintained that they did not allow sexual harassment. The principal “spoke to” the student with the Playboy photograph. Staff members reviewed material for class skits in advance and deleted all objectionable material. (Witnesses interviewed during the investigation, however, said no one intervened to stop skits when they turned out to be different from the ones approved.) School staff members conducted a discreet investigation of the genesis of the infamous list, though they admitted they weren’t too aggressive because they were trying to protect the girls, privacy. In addition, the school offered as a defense that it had a policy on sexual harassment and made efforts to educate staff members and students about it.
None of that was enough. The Minnesota Department of Human Rights cited the district for failing “to take timely and appropriate action to eliminate such behavior as required by law.” It found that the school’s inappropriate response, particularly to the list, created an offensive atmosphere that promoted sexual harassment. And it was no defense that the school had what the department called “a vague sexual harassment policy,” because “an infraction of it appears to have no tangible consequences.” In the parent/student handbook, “Smoking infractions are better spelled out.”(9)
In settling the case, the district agreed to adopt a new policy on sexual harassment and to post it in every school building. And in April of 1993 the district awarded Jill Olson $40,000 – at that time, the highest settlement in the country for a case of sexual harassment. Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner David BeauIieu said that the award carried a simple message to other school districts: “Take this stuff seriously.”(10)
These cases involved peer harassment. But other important cases in recent years have staked out different and even more controversial ground: they have dealt with the sexual harassment of students by teachers.
The most significant case of this sort was a 1992 Supreme Court case, Franklin V. Gwinnett County [Georgia] Public Schools. Christine Franklin first brought her case in December of 1988. She maintained that, since the fall of 1986, sophomore year, she had been subjected to continual sexual harassment by Andrew Hill, a coach and teacher of 20 years. She said that Hill engaged her in sexual conversations, asking about her experiences with her boyfriend and whether or not she would consider having sex with an older man. She charged that he forcibly kissed her on the mouth in the school parking lot, called her repeatedly at home, and, on three occasions in her junior year, interrupted a class she was in, asked the teacher to excuse her, and took her to a private off ice where he subjected her to coercive intercourse. Although teachers and administrators were aware of Hill’s behavior with Franklin, as well as with other students, they did nothing about it and discouraged Franklin from pressing charges. Eventually, Hill resigned on condition that all charges against him be dropped, and the school closed its investigation, relying on the doctrine of sovereign immunity that traditionally protects school districts and administrators from penalties, for negligence.
The case finally found its way to the Supreme Court, which overturned a lower court ruling that had said that Title IX authorized suits only for back pay or for an injunction ordering an end to the illegal activity. Those remedies, the Court said, were clearly irrelevant for students, since they aren’t paid to begin with and have almost always graduated from the school by the time the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. That approach, the Court said, “conflicts with sound logic” and would leave the student without remedy. So, because the school district had failed to protect her rights, the Court said that Franklin was entitled to collect damages.
This case captured the attention of school districts because, for the first time, the Supreme Court ruled that title IX permits individual students to sue for damages if they have suffered sexual harassment in school. The Court ruled unanimously that title IX can now be used as a vehicle to collect real money.
This was a wake-up call for school districts. Although the ruling probably cannot be applied retroactively, it is, nonetheless, having an impact on cases currently in the courts. In California, although a federal appeals court dismissed a suit filed against a school counselor for not stopping the harassment of a student that took place between 1990 and 1992, the Ninth Circuit warned that, after Franklin, similar conduct today might well convict the counselor.(11)
In October 1994, in the first Title IX case to go through a jury trial, a federal jury awarded a female student at a vocational school in Brooklyn $4,000,000 after the director told her she could have her schedule reduced only if she had sex with him every week until she graduated. She immediately reported the offer to the police and, the next day, recorded it on tape.(12)
Yet none of these legal remedies protects student victims against the searing impact sexual harassment can have on their lives. In a newspaper article about the cases of Jill Olson and Katy Lyle, the two young women talked about their lives after the settlements. Even though they were both able to go on to college, they bore deep scars. Katy Lyle still has trouble “trusting people,” and Jill Olson sometimes feels weary and hopeless. If all that hadn’t happened to her, Katy told a reporter, “Maybe I would have seen three proms instead of just one, and I could have enjoyed the basic things that high school kids do, like going to a football game and having a good time. It would have made my high school more fun than coming home and crying every day.”(13)
Another cruel result of many sexual harassment cases, no matter how they may be resolved, is the treatment the accusers often suffer at the hands of their teachers and fellow students. McGrath, the California lawyer who has handled a number of such cases, says, “It’s brutal what happens to people who complain. They are as popular as black people in the South who said, I have a right to eat at this lunch counter.’ Nobody wants to deal with this stuff. It is simply too ugly its easier to kill the messenger. Retaliation is illegal. Well, good luck.
“In cases I have handled,” she went on, “kids are attacked by peers. And when there’s an accusation between a teacher and a principal, the staff splits right down the middle. Women go after women, saying things like, What makes her think she’s so great that he would go after here?’ It’s a miserable thing to go through. Anyone who thinks it’s a free ride is in for a surprise.”
And the repercussions can go much further. In 1985, while she was at a youth hockey tournament in Rochester, Minnesota, with a friend and the friend’s family, 15-year-old Kathi Vonderharr was sexually assaulted by three teen-age boys she knew. Kathi and her family pressed charges against the boys, ignoring the pleas both of the boys, families and of the Youth Hockey Association of Minnesota. Eventually, the boys were found guilty of fourth-degree sexual assault.
But at school, it was Kathi who had to face the desertion of her friends; she was called “slut”, “whore” and “bitch” and found threats scrawled on her locker, such as “Kill the bitch, she took our friends to court.” Her assailants, meanwhile, missed only one hockey game – and that because the judge refused to postpone a hearing – and they were lionized as school heroes. There was even a complimentary story about them in the school yearbook.
Despite the urging of her parents, Kathi refused to change schools, saying she wouldn’t let anyone chase her out of her school. But just days after her 18th birthday, with a pile of unmailed thank-you cards to her friends on her bed, she drove a car into the garage, closed the door, and turned on the ignition. When her parents returned home and found her, she was holding a teddy bear, some Kleenex, and a picture of the people she loved.(14)
It might be comforting to believe that these cases represent isolated instances, examples of extreme and unusual behavior rarely experienced by the average student in the average school. But that, unfortunately, is not true. Several recent studies indicate that sexual harassment in schools is “pervasive.” It occurs in all parts of the country, in big cities and small towns, and in all kinds of schools – public, private, parochial, vocational. And, although it is most often endured by girls, it is not limited to them. Boys are also subjected to sexual harassment – most often by girls.
The first national study to call attention to the problem was conducted by the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, in conjunction with the Legal Defense and Education Fund of the National Organization for women. Called “Secrets in Public,” it was conducted through Seventeen, the most popular national magazine for teen-age girls, and focused exclusively on the experience of girls. A one-page questionnaire was printed in the September 1992 issue of the magazine with the headline “Whats Happening to You?” The survey asked 13 questions about whether very specific behaviors had ever occurred “when you didn’t want them to.” It also asked when, where, how often, by whom, whether the victim told anyone, and whether anything happened to the harasser. The last question, which evoked some wrenching responses, was “How did it make you feel?”
More than 4,200 girls – ranging in age from 9 to 19 and ranging in grade level from second through 12th – responded. Most of them (90%) were in public schools, 6%, in private schools; 4% in parochial or vocational schools. The vast majority of them (92%) were between the ages of 12 and 16.
Since then, there have been a number of smaller statewide studies and another national one, conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW). led Hostile Hallways, that study was part of the AAUW’s 10-year project, begun in the early 1980s, of examining the effect of school climate on girls. Conducted during February and March of 1993, this survey included both boys and girls in 79 schools across the country.
The AAUW sent letters to principals at randomly selected schools, asking for their participation, and contracted with the polling firm of Louis Harris and Associates to carry out the survey. Students were guaranteed anonymity, and 1,632 questionnaires were received from students in grades 8 through 11. Students were asked: “During your whole school life, how often, if at all, has anyone (this includes students, teachers, other school employees, or anyone else) done the following things to you when you did not want them to?” The list included 14 different forms of sexual harassment – half involving physical contact and half not. Students were asked if anyone had ever spread rumors about them, spied on them, touched them, grabbed them, brushed up against them, grabbed at their clothing, blocked their way, or forced them to kiss or engage in any other unwanted sexual behavior. The survey made clear that it was dealing only with unwanted and unwelcome behavior that interfered with the student’s life.
Another study was conducted in Connecticut during the 1993-94 school year as a collaboration between the Connecticut Permanent Commission on Women and the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut. Called in Our Own Backyard, it surveyed 543 Connecticut high school students – 235 boys and 308 girls – in grades 10 through 12, in seven high schools, in seven different districts across the state, as well as a cross-section of 58 Title IX coordinators.
Although these studies surveyed different populations, their findings were startlingly similar. Most significantly, they revealed just how large a portion of the student population had been subjected to unwelcome sexual behavior. In the AAUW study, 81%, of respondents said that they had experienced sexual harassment: 85% of the girls and 76% of the boys. When researchers at the University of Michigan analyzed the data more extensively, requiring that the target be able to name the place and surroundings where an incident of harassment took place, the percentages moved down a little: for boys, from 76% to 70%; for girls, from 81% to 76%. Among boys, blacks reported more harassment – 81% as compared to 75% for white males and 69% for Hispanic males. In the Wellesley study, 89% of the girls reported being harassed – one-third before seventh grade and 10% of the Hispanic girls before third grade. In Connecticut, 92% of the girls and 57% of the boys reported at least one experience of sexual harassment during high school.
These surveys are especially significant, according to McGrath, because “the students had nothing to gain from falsifying the surveys.” So there is every reason to believe that they were telling the truth.
A particularly disturbing finding was how frequently these behaviors occurred. In the Seventeen study, more than one-third of the girls (39%) said that they were harassed every single day. In the AAUW study, 31% of the girls said that harassment occurred “often.”
These studies showed not only the extent of the harassment but also its forms. The most prevalent was verbal harassment – degrading epithets; sexual comments about parts of the body, clothing, or looks; allusions to what type of sex certain individuals would be good at. Girls were also particularly disturbed by all the physical manifestations – grabbing and pinching, as well as whistles, howling, lip-licking, and crotch-grabbing.
By so ubiquitously affecting the atmosphere of the school, this behavior also influences the educational choices students make. Students taking classes not traditionally taken by their gender – girls in auto shop or boys in home economics classes – endure taunts and sometimes actual sabotage. One girl in an auto mechanics class reported finding her tools taken, her work destroyed, and, on the occasion when it was her responsibility to be in charge for the day, a mutiny on the part of the other students, all of whom were male. When, because of their lack of cooperation, she was unable to complete her assignment, she failed that part of the course. Eventually, she gave up and transferred to another class.
Students of both sexes report the same debilitating impact of harassment, but the effect on girls seems to be more profound and longer lasting. Among the many effects are not wanting to go to school, talking less in class, having difficulty paying attention, feeling embarrassed, losing sleep and self-confidence, and changing behavior – classes, seats, routes home, even friends.
In addition to harassment by members of the opposite sex, there are also instances of same-sex harassment, particularly against gay and lesbian students. In fact, many students say that one of the most offensive verbal taunts in anybody’s lexicon is to call someone a “homo” or a “lesbo.” This kind of behavior is so damaging to homosexual students that the Massachusetts Board of Education convened a special Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth to hear testimony from them. Paul Reville, a board member, says, “Young people came forward to talk about how miserable their lives had been made. They reported that often adults were standing by and participating, permitting other students to mock them.”(15)
Homosexual students were not the only ones who talked of the unresponsiveness of teachers and administrators, however. One of the most demoralizing aspects of harassment, many students reported, was the lack of support from adults. Many described the agony of having teachers or administrators stand by while harassing behavior was occurring and do nothing to stop it. They said that, when they reported instances of harassment to adults, they often encountered disbelief or found themselves blamed for the harassment.
Finally, many students who said that they themselves had been the targets of harassment admitted that they had turned around and harassed others. In the AAUW survey, two-thirds (66%) of all boys and more than half (52%) of all girls surveyed admitted that they had sexually harassed someone at school. And of those students, nearly all claimed that they themselves had been harassed. “That’s the hardest part,” says Jackie Provenzano, a Colorado Springs high school principal. “It just spirals. How can you get back at somebody who has made you feel degraded? Well, generally, what you do is to treat people the same way they treat you.”
While most well-intentioned people will agree that sexual harassment in our schools is an ugly and destructive thing and ought to be stopped, the current sensitivity to it and even some of the laws about it raise perplexing questions that should not be ignored.
First, whether or not a specific action constitutes harassment is often difficult to determine, particularly in today’s culturally diverse world. David Schenkel, who is now executive director of human resources for School District II in Colorado Springs but who spent many years as executive director of personnel for the Austin (Texas) Independent School District, says that much depends on what part of the country you are in and on what the style of a particular community happens to be. A teacher he knew, who moved from the Rio Grande Valley to the city of Austin, got into trouble because he couldn’t adjust to the big city mores. “He was just a touchy-feely person. That had been okay where he was from, but, when he got up to Austin, people were saying, You’re in my space’. What no one thought about in the Valley was inappropriate in Austin. That was a tough case.”
Some African American high school students insist that no one should stop them from calling one another “niggah.” Among blacks, according to Sattel of the Minnesota Department of Education, “that can be a term of endearment.” She says that black girls have told her that being called a “foxin’ bitch” is okay, too. “Even though the culture of the school can’t be racist, I believe students are entitled to have a subculture. You have to handle incidents like this differently. You have to let the subculture be the subculture.”
“In an inner city that is 100% black,” says Marvin Adams, the affirmative action officer in the largest district in Colorado Springs, “if that language were used, I’d say okay. Schools are part of their communities and need to reflect community values and attitudes.”
But others maintain that such language is never permissible. “What if the students said, It’s okay for me to cut another black person with a razor. It’s a black thing'” says Reginald McKnight, the distinguished African American writer and University of Maryland professor. “You can’t allow that. It’s not morally relative. It’s wrong.” He maintains that degrading language “may be specific to the culture, but it doesn’t make it right. It’s part of the pathology of the culture. No woman wants to be called bitch,’ and no self-respecting person anywhere wants to be called nigger.’ Bitch’ is not a term of endearment – ever. Nigger’ may be meant to be a pet term, but anger will turn words. It always remains attached to its pejorative nature.”
To Sattel’s assertion that girls some times call each other “slut” and “whore,” McKnight responds, “It’s true that people have pet names for one another. But when I was growing up,the words were brother’ or, sister,’ cuz,’ homie,’ blood,’ mutual words of correspondence, positive words. For the most part, those words have fallen out of usage and been replaced by those others, which are hurtfuI, signs of pain. These kids are not coming from families who say, We’ll go see your bitch grandmother and your nigger grandfather.’ These words are not part of the bedrock tradition through which black people have thrived.”
Free speech is another thorny issue raised by the question of sexual harassment. It is true that we regulate speech and have done so for a long time. After all, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., declared that no one has the right to cry “Fire!” in a crowded theater. But since much of the abuse students complain of is verbal, when adults attempt to prohibit student speech they can collide with established principles. For example, in an exclusive private high school in San Francisco, a young man delivering a speech to a school assembly, at which attendance was compulsory, alluded to the length of his penis. When the principal admonished him, a significant number of students (girls as well as boys) protested vigorously that his rights to free speech had been violated.
When Jill Olson demanded that the Playboy photograph be removed from a boy’s folder, was she trampling on his rights? Can’t a student have a pin-up on his own personal folder or inside a locker to which no one else has a key? At what point do the demands for a welcoming environment for members of both sexes clash with constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression? In a Colorado Springs high school, a principal was enjoined from forbidding a student to wear a Klan outfit until one of the African American students punched him. At that point, the costume became a danger to the student body and was forbidden.
Nothing about the sexual harassment issue, however, is more controversial than the question of the extent to which teachers are guilty of harassing students. The various surveys suggest that it does indeed happen, though just how pervasive a problem it is remains unclear. Just 4% of the students in the Seventeen study reported harassment by staff members. In the AAUW study, 18% of the students said that they had experienced sexual harassment by a teacher or other school employee. In the Connecticut survey, 13 students out of the more than 500 surveyed said that harassment had come from a teacher. And the Connecticut Title IX coordinators said that, of the sexual harassment complaints they had received, 22% were complaints about teachers.
The National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University in Los Angeles reported in April 1993 that more than one-fourth of the complaints filed against teachers in Florida public schools involved allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct.(16) A 1991 survey of North Carolina high school graduates found that 17.7% of males and 82.2% of females reported that they had been sexually harassed by a teacher or school employee during their school years.(17) A 1993 study of university students asked how many re-called instances of sexual harassment by high school teachers. Approximately 6% reported having personally experienced sexually inappropriate attention from teachers, and more than one-third said that they knew of a sexual relationship between a high school student and a teacher. More than half of the respondents agreed that there was a “conspiracy of silence regarding student-teacher sex in high schools.”(18)
Accusations of this kind elicit two sharply opposed responses. Representatives of teachers’ organizations insist that reports of widespread sexual abuse of students by teachers are inaccurate, that the great majority of accusations are the result of misunderstandings or outright lies. The new scrutiny, these representatives maintain, is encouraging a rash of false accusations, which they liken to the Salem witch hunts.
“It’s not unusual for a student to go home and tell a parent that a teacher did such and such a thing” says John Griego, executive director of school management in the largest school district in Colorado Springs. The student is trying to get back at a teacher who chastised him or gave him an F.” Griego says there are about a dozen or so such cases in his district each year.
Often these allegations are sorted out fairly easily. When interrogated, the kids cave in, or else there are glaring inconsistencies in their stories.
Sometimes the complaints can be resolved by sensitive questioning. In one high school, a student who had been abused as a very young child could not tolerate being touched at all. Simply having a teacher stand behind her desk and look at her work over her shoulder was coming too close. Once she made that clear, her teachers never did it again.
Union lawyers say that charges often come from girl’s who have been or are being abused by a family member. Since it’s too scary to report the father or stepfather, they transfer the accusation to someone they like and do not fear – someone they feel confident will not hurt them. On a “20/20” program that dealt exclusively with teachers who had been falsely accused and exonerated, Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association (NEA), said that most accusations against teachers are false.
Colorado has recognized the existence of the problem and passed a law stating that, if it can be proved that a student has falsely accused an adult, the school can suspend the student. In one district, after a group of fourth-graders conspired to set up a teacher, even though parents fought tooth and nail to keep the girls from being punished, the district did suspend them for three days.
Teachers feel that the districts, fear of litigation is so great that even the flimsiest allegation is given credence and leads to actions that approach persecution. “Any kind of allegation,” said one teacher,” and you are dead in the water.”
When an accusation is made, most districts immediately place the accused teacher on leave with pay so that an investigation can be conducted. Sometimes these leaves wear on for months, putting the teacher under a cloud of suspicion. “Even though the teacher may be completely innocent,” says Daniel Koen, the administrator of the Colorado Springs teacher union, “his or her reputation is harmed – among colleagues or, if the news gets out, in the community. And the kids pick up on that. This is a good way to get back at the teacher.” The union asks the districts to use administrative leave more sparingly and only in situations in which they believe it to be essential.
Teachers who have been through this experience talk about the self-doubt it engenders, the pain, the sense of betrayal. After committing their lives to young people, teachers feel like their “hearts have been ripped out” when students suddenly turn on them.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come back from those administrative leaves,” says a principal. “They have lost self-confidence. They question their own behavior. They are generally never the same again.”
At the other extreme, people whose job it is to investigate accusations of harassment disagree strongly with the teachers, views. There are false accusations made says Eleanor Linn of the University of Michigan. “But in more cases, something has happened. it’s important to keep in mind that sexual harassment rules have been set up because there are students who have been raped by teachers.” According to Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Hofstra University who has conducted one of the few studies of sexual abuse in schools, “It is more likely that students will fail to report actual incidents than that they will fabricate incidents.”(19)
Sattel maintains that NEA statements about false accusations “do not fit our experience.” She points to a study by the attorney general of Minnesota, begun in December 1993 and completed in May 1994, which verified that, of the 2,206 incidents reported at the elementary level in Minnesota, 2,081 (94%) were confirmed. The other 6% could not be substantiated, but even they were not necessarily found to be false.
It is difficult to determine verifiable statistics. Even when cases are reported,” according to Shakeshaft, many school districts are unwilling to make information on their experiences available to researchers. In some instances this reluctance stems from a laudable desire to guard the privacy of those involved; in others it stems from a fear of negative publicity, combined with a wish on the part of school personnel to protect their jobs.”(20) The wife of a Colorado teacher who went through such hearings after a sixth-grader said he made her feel “uncomfortable” maintains that “almost every male teacher we know has had some kind of allegation made.” But districts report only a handful of such cases a year. According to Michael Simpson of the NEA general counsel’s office, no one knows for sure how many accusations are made nationwide – much less, how many are true. He says that he knows only that the number of accusations has increased in the last five years.
Another unknown is how many cases are resolved by the teacher’s leaving. McGrath is particularly concerned by what she calls “the mobile molester,” the teacher who is permitted to resign quietly and move on to another district.
As for the notion that teachers are being railroaded, Sattel says, “The Constitution is not suspended when these charges are made. People are innocent until proven guilty. This is not a Salem thing. A good investigation is absolutely necessary.”
Even so, one of the most troubling manifestations of the new sensitivity has been the chilling of the classroom climate. Many teachers and administrators say that the specter of being accused of sexual harassment is fundamentally changing classrooms. Teachers are worried about their actions being misunderstood, about students who might maliciously distort innocuous gestures. Roger Stephon of the Human and Civil Rights Division of the NEA says, “I tell teachers, ‘In good conscience, I can’t tell you it’s okay to hug kids.’ It doesn’t make any sense to do that. This is a different world.”
In fact, there is so much concern about sexual harassment, particularly among male teachers, that Stephon arranged a workshop for men on the topic prior to this year’s annual NEA convention. There was an entire presentation on protecting oneself against charges.
On the “20/20” program that dealt with false accusations, NEA President Geiger was seen telling teachers to “teach but don’t touch.” And on the same program, an NEA lawyer was even more emphatic. Speaking to a group of teachers, he said, “if you hug a child, even a child who is hurt or crying, I will break your arms and legs. Don’t invite students to your home under any circumstances. If kids need help in the bathroom, take an aide with you, or let them go on the floor.” As Barbara Walters put it on the same program, there’s the fear that todays student is tomorrow’s accuser.”(21)
So there is clearly a level of suspicion and mistrust that has entered the learning equation. Koen, of the Colorado Springs teacher union, says, “Some parents say, ‘I want my children to be hugged; they need to be hugged.’ So some of them berate teachers who don’t do it. But we tell the teachers, ‘These parents are not going to be there for you when you are accused of child abuse.'”
A Colorado Springs high school principal who held a workshop in her school on sexual harassment says that she tried to give her staff enough information so that they could make reasonable decisions themselves. “Is it a reasonable decision for a male teacher to offer a ride late at night to a female student? No. You call the parents. If people know enough, they can avoid falling into pitfalls and traps.”
One way to be safe is to surround yourself with witnesses. “Don’t have kids sit on your lap when you are reading to them for a prolonged period,” warns Koen. “Or if you do, make sure there are plenty of other students in the room.” Another tip is for men to stay away from certain grade levels. A woman whose husband endured a hearing for alleged harassment said, “Any man who teaches sixth grade is crazy.”
Others protect themselves by never letting students get too close. “Probably leave about this much space,” said an experienced elementary teacher, as she held her hands about four feet apart. One Colorado elementary teacher who had been falsely accused and finally exonerated drew a red line across the front of his classroom and said, “Nobody crosses this line.”
“Teaching, one of the most personal al and interactive of all professions, has been sterilized to a point unimaginable even a generation ago,” mourns James Delisle, a professor of education at Kent State University, in an article in Education Week. He writes, “Every pat on the back has become suspect, each congratulatory squeeze to the shoulder a source of potential problems. Hugs have been demoted to handshakes. Private meetings with students have regressed to public forums. . . . In adopting this new philosophy our profession has quietly but surely taken a step back.”(22)
Others agree that this rush to protect has gone much too far. The paranoia is unnecessary, says McGrath, the California attorney. in order to be perceived as harassment, she insists, actions have to be more than an offhand remark or a pat on the shoulder. They have to be pervasive. “People don’t have to be afraid to say hello.”
Sattel of the Minnesota Department of Education agrees. “I don’t discourage age hugging. I say, pay attention to body language. Remember, you are a person in authority. Try to ask, ‘Do you need a hug? Do you want a hug?’ Schools that go to no-touch are going too far. Only certain areas of the body are sexually protected.”
But teachers are understandably wary. Faced with increasing numbers of emotionally needy students in their classrooms, they are confused by the mixed messages from administrators. After a workshop on sexual harassment at Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, teachers told their principal, “You keep telling us that the most important thing is that every child in this building have a positive relationship with at least one adult. That can make all the difference. But then you say, ‘Be careful now; don’t do anything that might be perceived as affectionate.'”
Administrators, too, are caught – between trying to protect their teachers, trying to see that students get the attention they need, and trying to avoid lawsuits. “I worry particularly about our male counselors,” says one principal. “If they were to pat someone on the back, what could someone allege happened?”
In such a highly charged atmosphere, the union has become a mal-practice practice insurance company for teachers, guaranteeing them up to a million dollars in liability protection as well as legal representation. One building representative says, “I tell even the poorest teachers – the ones saying they can’t afford to be a member of the union – ‘You can’t afford not to. One incident on the playground – your kid you want to send to college, he’s not going. You can’t afford to teach without insurance.'”
The union, however, maintains it does not work to keep someone in the profession who has been shown to be a harasser of any kind. “Teachers are in a position of trust with students, and they should not violate that,” says Koen. “I think often what happens in the popular media is that the association is portrayed as protecting bad teachers or criminals. We do have an obligation to represent members of the association, and we do. But our objective is that they be afforded due process. And if they are proven guilty after a hearing or after an investigation, they should be gone. But they should not be presumed to be guilty – particularly in cases of harassment – on the word of a student taken at face value, because it’s a very common occurrence that a student makes these things up.”
What Schools face today is a dauntingly complicated pragmatic problem: How can they comply with the law, eliminate sexual harassment, and be fair to all parties at the same time a great many methods of treatment are being tried.
There is no shortage of published and filmed materials designed to help students, teachers, and other staff members become better equipped to deal with these changing times. There are prepared curricula and handbooks containing a wealth of information@ definitions of exactly what sexual harassment is, legal background and summaries of relevant laws, sample policies, instructions on how to conduct an investigation, lesson plans, overheads, scenarios for role-playing exercises, first-person accounts of actual incidents, newspaper clippings, quizzes to uncover preconceptions and mis-information, and videos that attempt to give the sense and feel of the issue.
Districts are tackling the problem in a variety of ways. At Stevens Point High School in central Wisconsin, students dents have written and performed a minute play called “Alice in Sexual al Assault Land,” which they revise annually.
A seventh-grade program in a Detroit junior high includes videotapes in which local high school students act out everyday encounters involving harassment and flirtation. Each scene is followed by an on-screen discussion of whether or not sexual harassment is involved and why. Teacher-TV, produced by the NEA and aired on cable channels, has featured one 30-minute program on the subject. it includes interviews with some experts and shows some school sessions in progress.
A more common approach to dealing with the issue is to set up workshops, shops, either districtwide or held at individual schools. Many districts are trying to see that all employees – including bus drivers and janitors – attend them. They want everyone to know what the state and federal laws have to say on the subject, to be able to identify what behavior is and is not sexual harassment, and to know what the district’s policies and procedures are.
Another way to deal with sexual harassment is to confront it instantly and directly whenever it occurs. Jackie Provenzano, the Colorado Springs principal, says, “I say to kids, ‘what would happen if Mr. So-and-So walked down the hall and said, Hi, bitch!” to me?’ The kids say, ‘He wouldn’t do that.’ And I say, ‘No, and I don’t think you will say that to each other anymore either. You will not do that.’ I always use myself. ‘What would happen if I walked down the hall and one of the male teachers was standing there, and I gave him a big smack on the rear end?’ And then they see how ludicrous that is. I often work with girls about what they can do to avoid those situations. I tell them, ‘Say stop it. Stop it. And don’t do it again.’ I tell them, ‘It’s perfectly okay to say you are not comfortable with something.'”
Experts who have studied this is@ sue maintain that, when schools get involved in training, it’s important to identify unacceptable behavior and to enjoin students from engaging in it, but at the same time it’s important to urge people not to suffer in silence. However, that imposes a responsibility on schools to designate and train personnel. if students are being urged to come forward, school personnel must know precisely what the law says, what students, rights and options are, how to conduct investigations, and what strategies are available for resolving the situation.
Such training is essential, according to Linn, if school districts are going to help students and avoid liability. “The real problem with many prepared programs is that the advice is always to report the harassment to the school,” she says. “But if the school doesn’t have a policy and hasn’t trained people how to implement it, that may bring you a load of trouble. If the person the student reports to hasn’t been told what to do, that can put the student dent who is complaining in a difficult psychological position and put the school in a difficult legal position, because now they know.”
Parent meetings, Linn maintains, are crucial. Parents must be made to understand the rules of the school. She points out that for years parents have gotten together and agreed on such rules as not permitting drinking at any of their children’s parties. They can also be helped to understand that sexual harassment is dangerous for their children and is also against school rules and the law. “It’s important to make everyone understand that, in school, this is the way you need to behave.,”
Getting that consensus is not always easy. One of the problems is getting people to understand that sexual harassment is a problem. “People take this behavior as natural,” says Schenkel of School District 11 in Colorado Springs. Boys will be boys. Teenagers will be teenagers. People look at you like you’re crazy they say we are trying to change nature.”
It’s difficult to get people to accept that this behavior is a first cousin of other forms of harassment, such as racial and religious harassment, that we have outlawed for a long time. “This is more of an ingrained bias,” according to Schenkel. “That’s why it’s so hard to deal with.”
And then there’s the Pandora’s box syndrome, the conviction that mentioning sex in school at all gives students ideas that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Susan Strauss, an independent dependent consultant, puts it this way: “Many administrators are afraid if they bring the issue to the attention of students, they’ll open Pandora’s box, and they’ll get sued.” But Strauss and others maintain that” policies such as these reduce the likelihood of getting sued. They’re meant to create a climate where students know they can come forward.”(23)
Provenzano says that is exactly what has happened in her school. As they have made sexual harassment a more public issue, she says, students have become aware of what behaviors are prohibited and more courageous about objecting to them. They come into the principal’s office and say clearly, “He came up behind me and pinched me on my rear end, and I don’t like that kind of thing.”
Sattel agrees. Students in Minnesota schools who have been through the elementary and secondary curicula, she says, are relating to one another without the discomfort and even fear that accompanied the old attitudes. “Principals are often saying how pleased they are that they don’t have some of those problems anymore,” she continues. “In our schools, there is no more bra-snapping or kids grabbing each other. Kids need rules. They function better when they know what to do.”
As is the case with so many other issues with which schools must deal, there is no consensus about exactly what the schools should do, how they should do it, or when they should begin. Minnesota, for example, was the first state to develop a full-fledged curriculum for children in grades K-6. Called “Girls and Bops Getting Along,” it was introduced in 1993 after an extensive review and discussion by the Minnesota Department of Education with representatives of every district in the state. Nevertheless, after a conservative parent objected to line drawings of children with body parts named, the state commissioner withdrew the curriculum and had all existing copies boxed and stored in her office. The program has just been revised and reissued with the offending graphics removed.
Some believe that to pin the sexual harassment label on anything children do in elementary school is a mis-interpretation of their behavior. After all, young children have never been at a loss for ways to torment one another. Using adult norms, these critics say, is misguided. However, others insist that no one suddenly becomes a harasser in high school; the behavior begins much earlier, and so too should training against it. Kathryn Wells Murdock, director of legal services for the Oregon Department of Education, says, “if we want to change behavior, we have to start at the earliest level. We don’t just deal with complaints at the adolescent level.” According to Sattel, “It’s important to change things at the root.”
It’s not only when this training should begin that causes controversy, but whether there should be any training at all. Many people believe that sexuality should not even be mentioned in the schools – that all education on this subject encroaches on territory that rightfully belongs to parents. However, others think that the schools do not go far enough and should do far more than establish rules. They want schools to plunge into the murky area of sexuality. Linn and other researchers from the University of Michigan want discussions of sexuality incorporated into the curriculum. In an article scheduled for publication in in the American Educational Research Journal, Linn and her colleagues write, Sexuality among adolescents should become an important and up-front subject of discussion in schools – a front-burner item.” These scholars want what they call “an expansion of the agenda of schools,” to include consideration of “both wanted and unwanted sexuality in the formal and informal curriculum . . . in the literature, writing, and social studies curriculum at all grade levels.”(24)
Such a suggestion makes educators shake their heads. Principal Provenzano says, “We can’t even get the community or the state to agree on what we expect kids to know and be able to do when they leave these schools.” Just this year, a parent of one of her school’s students maintained that assigning The Scarlet Letter was tantamount to teaching Satanism. Trying to get everyone, in Provenzano’s words, “on the same page” is a very difficult assignment.
But experts who have studied sexual harassment over a long period of time maintain that it is unproductive and unjust to punish students without first explaining to them in detail exactly what they have done wrong. According to Beverley Lydiard, assistant superintendent of the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, “Ninety-five five percent of sexual harassment complaints among teens boil down to communication problems.” Lydiard developed one of the most widely copied programs on sexual harassment in the country, one that dates back to the early . She pioneered the often-imitated strategy of helping the target of the harassment write a letter to the perpetrator explaining in detail exactly what behavior was offensive and why.
Murdock maintains that, without teaching about it, the problem will never be solved. “It’s not just done by punishment,” she says. “If we don’t start changing these attitudes, attorneys and school boards are going to have just as many complaints five years from now as we are having now. The Oregon commitment is to educate first and litigate later. We try to get districts away from is this harassment?’ to ‘Does this statement show respect for other people?'”
What needs to happen, according to Nan Stein of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, is “a transformation of the broader school culture.”(25) It is important, many experts say, not only to make it clear that sexual harassment will not and cannot be tolerated in school, but also to help students understand that the denigration of anyone because of inherent attributes – race, religion, gender – is morally corrosive and erodes the cohesiveness of the school community. So schools are urged to encourage students to intervene on behalf of those being harassed.
Stein is particularly adamant about the importance of helping students become “justice makers,” willing to speak up when they witness harassment. “I tell them not to be moral spectators,” she said.
Of course, all this means that schools are being asked to take on yet another heavy responsibility, to incorporate one more time-consuming task into an already overcrowded curriculum, to cope with one more sensitive and highly controversial matter.
After Jackie Provenzano conducted the workshop in Wasson High School, she asked teachers to evaluate the program they found it helpful and informative, she says, “but in their narrative answers was a kind of unrest. ‘I got into teaching because I love kids, and over the years I’ve had more reports, bureaucracy, issues I’ve had to deal with that distract my time and attention from what my number-one goal is – to make a difference for every kid.'”
“Sometimes,” Provenzano says, “its overwhelming, the number of issues we have to deal with.”
It’s not the first time schools have been asked to remake the world, but this is a particularly difficult assignment. Schools are being called on – in fact ordered by the courts – to prohibit behavior that is glorified elsewhere. We live in a sex-saturated society, in which private behavior and popular culture contradict the pious sentiments of public pronouncements.
Even the bumper stickers are obscene. Lyrics on MTV are X-rated but available for all to see and hear. Movies and television programs contain violence and exploitation unimaginable just a generation ago. Sports heroes are convicted of rape; others boast of sexual exploits with thousands of women en. Even the President of the United States is not immune from seamy lawsuits. No expletives are deleted anywhere anymore.
Two years ago, in a southeastern suburb of Los Angeles, nine teenage boys were accused of molesting and raping girls as young as 10. After they spent a few days in jail, they returned to their school, according to the New York Times, “to a hero’s welcome.” The father of one of the boys boasted to a reporter, “Aren’t they virile specimen?”
In Chaska, Minnesota, the town where the high school boys printed their infamous list of 25, the town became outraged only when the local paper, in reporting the story, used the f-word. The behavior itself didn’t seem to upset anyone.
In the tragic instance of Kathi Vonderharr, a juvenile official reported that “the support the perpetrators got from that association [the Youth Hockey Association] was unbelievable.” And the boys’ parents, who refused to compel their sons to accept any responsibility, whined, “For one little touch, we’ve suffered so much. . . . We have been hurt as bad as they have.”
Several Halloweens ago, a girl arrived rived at her Colorado Springs high school in what appeared to be a trench coat and leggings. It wasn’t until midway through the morning that she “flashed” a teacher in the hallway. Her Halloween costume was a flesh-colored body suit on which she had embroidered sequined nipples and fur pubic hair when the principal called the girl’s mother to express her outrage and to tell her that the girl was on her way home, the mother responded, Don’t you have any sense of humor? I helped her make that costume.” “A school culture of sexual harassment exists in a wide and troubling social context,” says Stein of Wellesley.
At the same time, all kinds of interactions between men and women are being redefined. A stockbroker who addressed a letter to Mrs. So-and-So had it returned to him unopened because cause the woman to whom it was addressed answered only to her own first and last names. Men who hold doors open have had them slammed in their faces. Gestures that used to be a mark of respect can just as easily be interpreted nowadays as marks of contempt.
“People are confused,” according to Stephon of the NEA. “They are saying, ‘I’m not doing anything different. It’s the world that has turned upside down.’ It’s a lot like the kind of awakening we had 30 years ago when we were getting into integration desegregation.”
Usually young people adjust more easily to changing manners and mores, but these attitudes are so ingrained that even students are feeling the effects of the shifting social framework. “Boys will say that suddenly girls have changed,” says Principal Provenzano. “The boys will tell the girls that they are having trouble adjusting to these rule changes.” Schools can mandate behavior within their walls, but you can walk into any shopping mall and watch students behave toward one another in ways that would constitute sexual harassment in schools.
“I think the spectrum of behaviors that we tolerate – not accept, but tolerate – has broadened to the extent that it’s very difficult to help young people learn at the ages of 16, 17, and 18 that those are no longer acceptable practices,” says Provenzano.
The battle over sexual harassment is taking place at a time when we are relying less on individual restraints and turning more and more to official, out@ side reminders of what is acceptable. At the supermarket checkout counter, a sign says, “Please be considerate of others.” In movie theaters, expensively made cartoons plead with us not to throw trash on the floor or talk during the show. The absence of concern for others is what is leading us to rely increasingly on litigation to determine our behavior. In an earlier time, the courts were our last resort; today, we often use them first.
But in the question of sexual harassment, students, and particularly young women, see clearly what is at stake. In Wasson High School in Colorado Springs, the principal had the importance of the subject brought to her attention two years ago by students dents in a coeducational civics-class. They were discussing how to bring about change in a democratic society. The girls in the class said unanimously that they wanted first to change the way boys treated them. “That was my first introduction to a generalized student concern,” recalls the principal – “more than just one girl saying, ‘This boy bothers me when he talks to me this way.’
“For some of our students,” she continues, “school is the safest place in their whole life. That’s nationwide. School is the one environment they can predict. They know when lunch is, they know who the adults are who care about them, they have somebody to go to, their friends are there. So you have to be sure these are safe places for them.”
“Since students are under compulsory education laws,” says Murdock dock of the Oregon Department of Education, “it seems to me that sexual harassment is even worse when it happens at school than when it happens at work. Adults can quit their jobs if they have to, but a child can’t quit going to school. When we require children to go to school, we have a duty to provide a safe environment.”
If there is any doubt about the urgency of this crusade, one has only to listen to the voices of individual girls, expressing their pain at being grabbed and groped, brushed up against, and subjected to hateful epithets. These anonymous students poured out their torment to Seventeen magazine, using an impersonal, printed form. They were not even sure a real person would actually receive their letters or pay attention or care. In these responses, the girls identified themselves by age and ethnicity, but they all spoke with one voice:
“They threw condoms at me and called me a five-cent hole.” I felt sad, mad, hurt, dirty, and cheap,” said a 14 year-old Japanese/Caucasian girl from Hawaii.
He called me a slut and a bitch when I said no. It shouldn’t be happening to anyone. It breaks your soul,” said a 14-year-old white girl from New Hampshire.
“I told my counselor, and he told me to get used to it because I was more mature than everyone else! Please It made me feel a little powerless,” said a 100-year-old biracial girl from Michigan.
“I was wearing a black silk tank top and jeans (very baggy) Three guys cornered me and said, ‘You know, if we raped you right now we could get away with it because you’re dressed like a slut.’ That alone made me feel so ashamed and embarrassed because I thought I looked nice,” said a 17-year-old Cuban/whitegirl from Maryland.
“I’m scared they’re going to do something worse if I tell,” said a 12 year-old Mexican girl from Texas.
“I think schools need to pay more attention to what’s going on around them because girls like me are just dying inside because no one will believes us,” said a 14-year-old white girl from Florida.(26)
“Educators need to worry about sexual harassment in their institutions for three fundamental reasons,” says the Educators Guide to Controlling Sexual Harassment: “It’s expensive, it’s illegal, and it’s wrong.”(27)
(1.) Educators Guide to Controlling Sexual Harassment (Washington, D.C. Thompson Publishing Group, September 1993), Tab 100, p. 3. (2.) Sec 703 of Title VII, 42 U.S.C., stipulates: “It shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer . . . to fail or refuse to hire or to discharge any individual, or otherwise to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individuals race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” (See EEOC Notice, #N-915-050, 19 March 1990.) (3.) Those regulations state: “Harassment on the basis of sex is a violation of sec. 703 of Title VII. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when 1) submission to such conduct is made either implicitly or explicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, 2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or @@ such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” (29 C.F.R. [section]1604.11[A].) (4.) Bernadette Marczely, “A Legal Update on Sexual Harassment in the Public Schools,” Clearing House, July/August 1993, p. 331. (6.) Memo summarized in Who’s Hurt and Who’s Liable: Sexual Harassment in Massachusetts Schools: A Curriculum and Guided for School Personnel (Boston: Massachusetts Department of Education, 1986), p. 22. (7.) Katy Lyle, “Sexual Harassment in the Boys’ Room: One Teen’s True Story,” in Nan Stein and Lisa Sjostrom, Flirting or Hurting? A Teacher’s Guide on Student-to-Student Sexual Harassment in Schools (Grade 6 Through 12) (Washington, D.C.: NEA Professional Library, 1994), Appendix, p. 95. (8.) Minnesota Department of Human Rights Findings, Ref: ED360, signed by Gary Gorman, Human Rights Enforcement Supervisor, n.d. (9.) Ibid., p. 11. (10.) “Former Chaska Student Wins $40,000 over Harassment Claim,” Star Tribune, 6 April 1993, p. 1. (11.) “You May Be Liable for Student-to-Student Sexual Harassment,” Your School and the Law, July 1995, p. 10. (12.) Tamar Lewin, “Students Use Law on Discrimination in Sex-Abuse Suits,” New York Times, 26 June 1995, p. 1. (13.) Rebecca Sisco, “Sexual Harrassment – Girls Fight Back,” Minnesota Women’s Press, 9-23 October 1991, p.1. (14.) Doug Grow, “Suicide Ended Kathi’s ‘Fight for Dignity,'” Star Tribune, 5 July 1987, p.1. (15.) Though discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is not prohibited by federal law, Massachusetts now has a board policy against sexual harassment of students of sexual preference, and training sessions have been set up for faculty. (16.) School Safety Update, National School Safety Center News Service, Westlake Village, California, April 1993, p. 2. (17.) Dan H. Wishnietsky, “Reported and Unreported Teacher-Student Sexual Harassment,” Journal of Educational Research, vol. 3, 1991, pp. 164-69. (18.) Kelly Corbett, Cynthia S. Gentry, and Willie Pearson, Jr., “Sexual Harassment in High School,” Youth and Society, September 1993, p. 93. (19.) Charol Shakeshaft and Audrey Cohan, “Sexual Abuse of Students by School Personnel,” Phi Delta Kappan, March 1995, p. 514. (20.) Ibid., p. 513. (21.) The program aired on 11 March 1994. (22.) James R. Delisle, “Reach Out, but Don’t Touch,” Education Week, 21 September 1994, p. 33. (23.) National Council for Research on Women, Issues Quarterly, special issue on sexual harassment, vol. 1, 1994, p. 3. (24.) Valerie E. Lee et al., “The Culture of Sexual Harassment in Secondary Schools,” American Educational Research Journal, in press. (25.) Nan Stein, “Sexual Harassment in School: The Public Performance of Gendered Violence,” Harvard Educational Review, Summer 1995, p. 159. (26.) Nan Stein, Nancy L. Marshall, and Linda R. Tropp, Secrets in Public: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools: A Report on the Results of a Seventeen Magazine Survey (Wellesley, Mass.: NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Wellesley College Center for 27. Educator’s Guide, Tab 100, p. 5
COPYRIGHT 1995 Phi Delta Kappa Inc.