Sexual Harassment Policies in Florida School Districts

By Moore, Michele Johnson; Rienzo, Barbara A. | Journal of School Health, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment Policies in Florida School Districts


Moore, Michele Johnson, Rienzo, Barbara A., Journal of School Health


Sexual harassment "is a form of sex discrimination, and is illegal as defined by Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, and numerous state criminal and civil statutes."[1] The Office for Civil Rights of the US Dept. of Education, the agency that enforces Title IX, issued a memorandum in 1981 specifying that for schools to be in compliance they must formulate and publish a policy opposing sexual harassment, a grievance procedure available to complainants, and procedures ensuring prompt and equitable resolution of complaints.[2,3] State statutes often reinforce these federal laws. Some require specific policies against sexual harassment, others forbid harassment, but do not mandate that all districts establish their own policy.[4] Students and employees are legally protected against sexual harassment from other employees, students, and individuals connected to the school district, even if only by being part of an organization with which the school has a contractual agreement.[1]

Until recently, little attention was paid to sexual harassment that occurs in primary and secondary schools. Several school-related sexual harassment lawsuits and study results heightened awareness of the issue. A dramatic increase occurred in the number of school-related cases going to court in the early 1990s, commonly involving student to student issues. Students filed suit against their schools for failing to take action to protect them from sexually harassing activities that occurred at school. Some students received monetary damages from their schools, while others received an agreement from the school to adopt and post policies on sexual harassment.[4,5]

One of the most significant cases, Franklin v Gwinnett County Public Schools in 1992, involved teacher to student sexual harassment. The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled in this case that Title IX permits individual students to seek monetary damages from their schools and school officials for violating their civil fights if they are victims of sexual harassment or other forms of sex discrimination.[4,6] More recently, however, in Gebser et al v Lago Vista Independent School District, the US Supreme Court upheld the Fifth Circuit's ruling that damages may not be recovered for teacher to student sexual harassment in an implied private action under Title IX unless a school district official -- who minimally has power to stop the harassment on the district's behalf -- has actual notice of and is deliberately indifferent to the teacher's misconduct.[7] Circuit courts have delivered conflicting rulings in cases concerning student to student sexual harassment, making it likely the issue will go to the US Supreme Court for resolution.[8] These cases highlight a new and disturbing trend in public school litigation that cannot be ignored and a longstanding problem that deserves the attention of school officials.[9]

In 1992, a national study called "Secrets in Public" conducted by Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, the Legal Defense and Education Fund for the National Organization of Women, and Seventeen magazine first called attention to the problem of sexual harassment.[4] In 1993, the American Association of University Women published Hostile Hallways, a national survey that documented the widespread nature of sexual harassment in America's schools.[10] Others have conducted state-level studies. Yaffe[4] reviewed the AAUW, Wellesley, and Connecticut studies and noted several common findings: a large proportion of both male and female students are harassed; the behaviors occur frequently; most commonly the behavior is verbal, but physical actions are also common; the behavior is detrimental to all students, but especially to girls; and many who have been sexually harassed, also have harassed others. The authors of a New Jersey study[11] reviewed Massachusetts and Minnesota studies in addition to those listed above and reported that those results, as well as their own, documented similar findings.

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