Responding to Sexual Harassment in Special Education Settings

By Young, Ellie L.; Allen, Melissa et al. | Teaching Exceptional Children, March/April 2004 | Go to article overview

Responding to Sexual Harassment in Special Education Settings


Young, Ellie L., Allen, Melissa, Ashbaker, Betty Y., Teaching Exceptional Children


Here are sobering facts: Sexual harassment permeates the culture of American schools. The majority of students report that they have experienced sexual harassment (American Association of University Women [AAUW], 1993, 2001; Dupper & Meyer-Adams, 2002; Shakeshaft et al, 1995; Stein, 1995, 1999; see box, "What Does the Literature Say?").

Few articles about sexual harassment and students with disabilities have appeared in the research literature (Stein, 1999), though our experience shows that sexual harassment occurs among all populations of students. Students with disabilities may lack the social skills and impulse control (Kavale & Forness, 1996) necessary to avoid participating in behavior associated with sexual harassment. These students may also lack the awareness of how their comments and actions affect others. School personnel may have questions about how to appropriately address student behavior that violates the school's sexual harassment policy, but is related in some way to the student's identified disability. We must balance the rights of all children to a safe and positive educational environment while also maintaining the rights of students with disabilities.

Legal issues related to sexual harassment and special education suggest that special education teachers and administrators must understand what sexual harassment is, how it affects different people, and how to implement appropriate interventions and responses. This article shows how educators can deal with issues of sexual harassment, foster positive social behavior, and support a caring environment that facilitates student achievement.

The Low and Sexual Harassment

Based on Title IX, a federal mandate regarding sexual discrimination, all federally funded schools are required to publish a policy prohibiting sexual discrimination; sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination (Stein, 1999). School districts tend to find themselves in legal difficulties when school adults have been made aware of sexual harassment, but they have done little or nothing to respond to the situation.

For example, in the case of Davis v. Monroe County (GA) Board of Education (1999), a fifth-grade male student sexually harassed a female classmate by rubbing his body against her in a sexual manner, touching and grabbing her crotch and breasts, and frequently using sexually vulgar language. Even though both the girl and her parents reported this offensive behavior to school personnel on several occasions, the boy's behavior continued. Several months after the behavior was initially reported, the parents filed a lawsuit against the school district. The court found the school district negligent in protecting the female student's rights. The student and her parents were awarded a substantial amount, based on the emotional distress and trauma caused by the district's failure to intervene after they were made aware of the ongoing sexual harassment (Stein, 1999).

Schoolwide Prevention

Schoolwide prevention involves two components. First, educators should review the school policy to ensure that the policy contains basic information about sexual harassment. The policy should also include specific examples of how to identify and respond to harassing behavior and how to create proper documentation of the incident and outcomes. all students, parents, and school personnel should have a copy of the policy and be aware of its contents. The policy should be frequently discussed and consistently implemented.

Second, education for both students and personnel to prevent sexual harassment is vital. An underlying tolerance of inappropriate behavior encourages and condones student sexual harassment (AAUW, 2002). Telling sexual jokes or making degrading sexual references or innuendoes must be distinctly defined as inappropriate and unacceptable. Training should address ways to build a positive, respectful school climate where educators and students model and promote considerate and polite behavior. …

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