Advocacy for Sexual Harassment Victims: Legal Support and Ethical Aspects

Article excerpt

Sexual harassment has become a subject of social and educational policy debate and discourse.

The U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999) has given sexual harassment an even more prominent place on the national agenda. The Davis case, in combination with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and other legislation and case law, established that public schools can be forced to pay damages for failing to stop student-on-- student sexual harassment. The Davis case is predicted to be a defining court case, cited and exercised in subsequent litigation defining the potential economic impact of sexual harassment on school districts who do not establish and/or strengthen their district's posture against sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can no longer be ignored or given cursory attention by school districts. Davis demands advocacy against known sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is a complicated issue for school counselors, because the vast majority of students (90% in the Hostile Hallways study) do not tell a school official that they have been victimized (Harris/Scholastic Research, 1993). The challenge for school counselors is to help create an environment free of sexual harassment and encourage students to report harassment when it does occur. A critical ethical issue for school counselors is appropriately responding to the needs of the students who reveal the abuse but may seek confidentiality. This poses special ethical and legal questions.

In the following section, the hypothetical case of Sarah, who confides in her school counselor that she has been the victim of sexual harassment, is presented. This article uses the case of Sarah to frame a response and define the school counselor's advocacy role by examining: (a) the Davis case, Title IX, and other legislation and case law regarding studenton--student sexual harassment, (b) the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools and the emotional costs, (c) the implications of the Davis decision for school districts and school counseling, (d) the counselor's legal and ethical obligations to Sarah and to her parents, and (e) the legal and ethical complications of confidentiality with minors who are victims of sexual harassment in schools.

The Case of Sarah

Until sixth grade, Sarah was a conscientious student consistently given high marks by teachers in her work ethic. Sarah's elementary academic life was not without struggle, but her motivation allowed her to maintain above average grades with an occasional "C." However, the sixth grade brought a marked change in grades and attitude for Sarah. At first her teachers and parents attributed the change to "middle-school adjustment," but when Sarah began to make health excuses to miss school, her parents called the school counselor for help.

During the parent-initiated school counseling sessions, Sarah's counselor began to learn the truth of her first 5 months of sixth-grade. Sarah was a victim of sexual harassment. Sarah was unusually well-developed for a 12 year old and found herself the target of jokes and sexual comments about her physical development. Changing classes was the worst time for Sarah as boys leered, jeered, brushed up against her, and sometimes a hand would grope. Most recently, Sarah found herself trapped against her locker by a group of boys who made lewd remarks to her and wouldn't let her pass. Their leader, who frequently harassed Sarah, was a boy she recognized as having slid his hand up her blouse while she was trying to negotiate a crowded hallway. Sarah shared her situation with her friends, who repeatedly advised her to ignore the perpetrators and not to make "a big deal about it."

To complicate matters, Sarah told her counselor that she did not want her revelations repeated to anyone, especially her parents: "They always tell me I am too loud and forward with boys and that my clothes are too tight. If they learn about what these boys have been doing, they will just tell me 'I told you so' or 'you asked for it by dressing like that'. …