Team Input Shapes a College's Sexual Harassment Policy

Article excerpt

A school, like any other organization, is concerned with providing an appropriate environment for work and learning. This means, for one thing, protection from sexual harassment. Many educational institutions are finding the need to develop or fine-tune existing policies in this area to communicate that their organizations won't tolerate abuse of authority or position in obtaining sexual favors.

As the grievance officer at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I participated on a team that worked on refining this school's sexual harassment policy approximately two years ago. Because the school is both an employer and an institution of higher learning, implementing and communicating such a policy was uniquely challenging. Here's why: Employers only are responsible for regulating the conduct of staff members as that conduct's directed at other staff members. But because schools also are learning institutions, they must regulate the conduct of faculty and staff as it's directed at faculty, staff and students, in addition to the harassing conduct of students as it's directed at faculty, staff or other students.

As such, two separate federal anti-discrimination laws apply: Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although both laws require adopting policies on sexual harassment that establish grievance mechanisms and prompt appropriate action on charges that are found to have merit, each law protects a specific group of individuals and requires different procedures and remedies for sexual harassment.

Title VII prohibits sexual discrimination by an employer, but extends its protection only to those individuals who have an employment relationship or are applying for employment. In an academic context this covers faculty and staff. Students would be covered only if they're employed by the school. Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender of students in institutions of higher learning that are receiving federal funds. Its scope is broader and covers all students, not just those who are employed at the facility.

Title VII provides reinstatement with back pay and limited compensatory and punitive damages to victims of sexual harassment. Title VII victims also are entitled to a jury trial. Under Title IX, neither damages nor a jury trial are available. An institution in which members are guilty of violating Title IX must discontinue the prohibited action or face elimination of federal funding.

The policy in place prior to two years ago pertained to the Art Institute and was outlined in the museum's employee handbook. It wasn't explicit enough to encompass all of these elements. It also didn't address how victims from each of the communities--staff, faculty and students--should report and handle misconduct directed toward them.

To ensure that all issues pertaining to each group would be addressed in a revised policy, a policy-formation team was assembled, comprising myself, the dean of students, the assistant dean of multicultural affairs, a member of the faculty senate, a staff senate member and a representative from the student body. The team not only sought input from each of the communities affected by the policy, it also created a sense of ownership and a willingness to get the policy through the approval process.

THE TEAM DEFINES SEXUAL HARASSMENT AS IT PERTAINS TO THE SCHOOL'S VARIOUS COMMUNITIES. The team concluded that the first thing any policy should contain is an understandable definition of sexual harassment. We found that altering EEOC's definition by deleting verbiage pertaining specifically to employment and adding language to include advancement or academic success fit our purposes. The definition as we refined it reads:

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 explicitly or implicitly, a term or condition of an individual's employment, advancement or academic success, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for decisions affecting such individual, or (3) 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. …