Sexual Harassment in the Schools: Strategies for Prevention

By Johnson, Kim K. P.; Lennon, Sharron J. | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Sexual Harassment in the Schools: Strategies for Prevention


Johnson, Kim K. P., Lennon, Sharron J., Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


Abstract Sexual harassment is common in schools. This article provides a discussion of what constitutes sexual harassment for children and why children sexually harass each other. It also outlines the effects of sexual harassment on children. Strategies are presented for working toward the elimination of sexual harassment in schools and other environments.

Our interest in sexual harassment stemmed from newspaper accounts about children being accused of sexual harassment or suing school districts claiming they had been sexually harassed. Two instances involved elementary school children (Coles, 1996; "Kiss leads," 1996; Onishi, 1996). In one instance, a first grader was suspended for one day for kissing a classmate. The other incident involved a oneweek suspension for a second grader who kissed a girl and tore a button from her skirt. Both occurrences raised questions about the applicability of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to children.l

The suspensions highlight the dilemma with which educators struggle, fearing they may be sued for not interceding when one student sexually harasses another (Lewin, 1996). Some charges of sexual harassment have been made in schools in which personnel have failed to respond adequately. A jury awarded damages of $500,000 to a sixthgrade girl who endured months of name calling, violent threats, and obscene gestures (Lewin). A ninth grader found her name on a list of 25 girls who allegedly were promiscuous. She filed a complaint with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights who found in her favor, and the school district paid her $40,000 (Schneider, 1993).

Sexual harassment2 is concerned with an abuse of power in relationships and is against the law under Title IX of the 1972 Civil Rights Act. This act was reinforced through a set of 1996 guidelines sent to federally funded school districts. The guidelines noted that schools that did not take adequate steps to stop sexual harassment would be in violation of Title IX. The Department of Education can investigate complaints, order remedies, and withhold funding from noncompliant districts. Furthermore, in February 1992 the Supreme Court ruled a victim can sue the school for damages in cases of sexual harassment (Mann,1994).

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's (EEOC) definition of sexual harassment distinguishes two forms. Quid pro quo (Latin meaning "this for that") prohibits trading sexual behaviors for promotion or reward. Hostile environment harassment means that sexual or gender-based language, conduct, or material have pervaded the environment to a point that one or more individuals feel their ability to participate in the environment has been reasonably affected (Bera & Sepler,1993).These formally recognized instances and formal definitions of sexual harassment raise several questions including (1) What constitutes sexual harassment for children?; (2) Why do children sexually harass each other?; (3) What effects does sexual harassment have on children?; and (4) What strategies exist for eliminating sexual harassment?

Defining Sexual Harassment

The courts have supported claims of sexual harassment when the harassment consisted of vulgar name calling, teasing about genitalia (Hillbery, 1992; Kutner, 1994); including the victim on a list that indicates promiscuity (Schneider, 1993); sexually explicit name calling; taunts about breasts; pinching in the chest, groin, or buttock areas; holding someone down and kissing him or her (Barringer, 1993; Kendall, 1992); making sexually suggestive comments; and engaging in inappropriate touching (Rybin, 1994). Sexual harassment for children can also be defined by reviewing research. In 1993 the American Association of University Women (AAUW) commissioned a study to assess sexual harassment in America's schools and its effect on children ("Hostile hallways," 1993); 1,632 surveys were completed by students in grades 8-11. Sexual harassment was defined as any of the following: making sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks; showing, giving, or leaving sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes; writing sexual messages/graffiti on bathroom/ locker room walls; spreading sexual rumors; accusing someone of homosexuality; spying on someone while he or she is dressing/showering; flashing; touching, grabbing, pinching, pulling at clothing, or brushing against someone in a sexual way; pulling clothing off/down; cornering someone in a sexual way; forcing someone to kiss you; or forcing someone to do something sexual other than kissing. …

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