Sex Harassment in Our Schools

By Nan Stein

Stephen Clayton Jones brought national acclaim to the band at Masterman Demonstration High School in Philadelphia.

Students worked hard to get into his orchestra, even practicing in the hallways and stairwells.

Jones was also well known, however, for private lessons with young women students. The lessons often started with a hug, comments about the girl’s hair or clothes, or questions about boyfriends. The hugs would get longer and more intimate and sometimes lead to kissing. Jones was not afraid to publicly display his affectionate behavior, forcing female students to sit on his lap or kissing students on their necks in the hallways, according to an article by Dale Mezzacappa in the Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine.

Years later, some of those women students came forward with their stories. Brought into the open, Jones’s behavior finally was recognized for what it was: sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is sadly frequent in elementary and high school life, yet startlingly absent from literature on education. Where students are concerned, it consists of both harassment among peers, overwhelmingly by male students toward females, and harassment between school employees and students.

When most people speak of sexual harassment in education, they think of colleges and universities. In middle and high schools, sexual harassment is not carefully defined or communicated to students, teachers, and administrators. It is far too often trivialized, condoned, ignored, or, especially in the case of peer harassment, dismissed as “typical adolescent behavior.”

But just as in higher education, sexual harassment in elementary and secondary schools is against the law. It is a form of sex discrimination that violates federal law and may also violate state criminal and civil statutes.

Sexual harassment includes leering, pinching, patting, sexual gestures, verbal comments, dirty jokes, sexual innuendos, pressure for sex, grabbing, assault, attempted rape, and rape. It can be a one-time occurrence or a repeated behavior.

It is up to the person being harassed to define “sexual harassment,” and the perpetrator does not have to agree that the actions constitute sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can happen directly to a student, but can also be contained in the environment around students — for example, a “poisoned,” hostile, or intimidating environment that interferes with a student’s right to an equal educational opportunity.

For school districts, sexual harassment is also potentially expensive. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in February that under Title IX, students who have suffered from sex discrimination, which may include sexual harassment, can sue their schools and school officials for compensatory damages. The case involved high school student Christine Franklin, who sued the Gwinnett County public schools in Georgia over the alleged sexual harassment by coach and teacher Andrew Hill.

The Court based its decision on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sexual bias in education programs receiving federal financial assistance. By making schools and officials potentially liable for financial damages, the decision significantly expands Title IX as a weapon against sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment occurs during the mundane daily matters of school: in the corridors and stairwells; in the cafeteria, chemistry lab, carpentry shop, and gym; in the parking lot, and in the driver’s ed. car.

The first survey on sexual harassment in high schools was done in 1980 by the Massachusetts Department of Education in conjunction with the Alliance Against Sexual Coercion. The survey included 200 male and female students from culturally and racially diverse backgrounds from urban, suburban, and rural areas in both public and private schools. In addition, in-depth interviews were conducted with 60 young women in “non-traditional” courses such as auto mechanics and plumbing.

The research revealed the following:

  • Young women are much more likely to be victims of sexual harassment, especially the more severe forms of unwanted physical attention, than their male counterparts.
  • Sexual harassment is a problem in both academic and vocational high schools. It doesn’t only occur when young women are in the minority, as they often are in vocational schools or in “non-traditional” courses.
  • Student-to-student sexual harassment is more prevalent than teacher-to-student sexual harassment.
  • Peer sexual harassment ranges from verbal and written comments to physical assault and attempted rape.
  • High school students are also sexually harassed on the job, both in jobs supervised by school personnel or those independent of school.

The survey, supported by data collected in California, Hawaii, Washington, and Minnesota, showed that sexual harassment adversely affected not only teaching and learning, but the psychological and social development of adolescents. Among the direct effects were embarrassment, fear of retaliation, anger, powerlessness, loss of self-confidence, and cynicism about education and teachers. Physical symptoms included insomnia and listlessness. Harassed students also reported a reduced ability to do their school work and were excessively absent or tardy. Some said the harassment led them to transfer from particular courses or majors and, in some cases, to withdraw from school.

More subtle harassment produced less tangible problems. Students who felt betrayed, discredited, or compromised by peers —and unsupported by school staff— seemed less trusting of people, less enthusiastic about school, and less confident in the effectiveness of school policies.

Overwhelmingly, sexual harassment is targeted at females, and its lingering effects can lead to a denial of equal educational opportunity.

A 1986 Minnesota survey of juniors and seniors in a predominately white, middle-class secondary vocational center found that of the 133 females questioned, depending on the courses in which they were enrolled, 33-60% said they had been sexually harassed. Only one of the 130 males reported he had been a victim. And at a 1986 student leadership conference on sex equity in Minnesota, 80% of the participants said they were aware of sexual harassment in their schools.

When there is a hint of a sexually tinged relationship between a minor and an adult in a school, confusion or cover-up seems to be the typical response. Because the sexual harassment has entered a new domain — that of child abuse and criminal felonious behavior — more is at stake.

One of the problems is that few schools or systems have established channels to deal with allegations of harassment. Are the allegations to be reported to officials at the school? To the central office? If the allegations include sexual abuse of a minor by a school employee, are the allegations to be reported to state officials that oversee allegations of child abuse and neglect? To police? To the district attorney’s office?

Adult perpetrators of sexual harassment of a minor are frequently clustered in a few particular roles such as coach, driver education teacher and extracurricular adviser. Such roles often require individual contact with students, often in private and often in a relationship involving trust and intimacy. Although these same adults may be classroom teachers, there is generally less frequent physical sexual harassment when the adults are in their classroom roles.

In the case of band director Stephen Clayton Jones, he was confronted with the allegations and handed the students’ signed statements. He turned in his letter of resignation, although he never confirmed or denied the allegations.

The school district began proceedings to revoke his teaching license. He surrendered his license in 1989, in lieu of revocation, and notice to this effect was sent to every state department of education in the country. In this respect, the Jones case is notable. In most cases, backroom plea-bargaining arrangements have been worked out between the school board and the accused. There are no official termination hearings at the local level, and the superintendent and school board agree to keep the matter confidential and not to pursue revocation of the teacher’s license.

Thus in the more typical sequence of events, the teachers become “mobile molesters.” They resign and move along to the next unsuspecting community. There, they might repeat the alleged behaviors.

The culprits in these scenarios are not just the abusive teacher but also the superintendent and school board. They collude in this conspiracy of silence and pass along an abusive teacher because it is easier, more expedient and cheaper than dismissal proceedings. Clearly, such negligence must be stopped and, if need be, prosecuted.

The Senate hearings on sexual harassment involving Anita Hill and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas have provoked a national awareness of the issue. Such awareness, however, needs to extend to the sexual harassment that exists in elementary and secondary schools.

One way to heighten such awareness is to use materials which highlight the problem of sexual harassment in schools.

In addition, the problem of sexual harassment must be included in teacher preparation programs. Teachers need to understand that they have a responsibility to intervene to discourage discrimination and harassment. They must also develop strategies for intervention.

Likewise, there must be in-service programs for existing school personnel. Everyone in the school community — from the custodian and bus driver to the classroom teacher and coach, from the superintendent to the administrator and school board member — must be trained to recognize sexual harassment. They must know their responsibility to report such harassment and to create strategies to prevent it. In this regard, it is important to develop remedies that stop sexual harassment incidents before they escalate and end up in the courts.

Finally, policymakers must untangle the jurisdictional confusion about which state agencies are responsible for complaints of sexual harassment and child sexual abuse in the schools. They must then publicize these lines of authority. In addition, they must ensure that children who experience sexual abuse and harassment in a school setting are heard and protected.

By implementing such suggestions, we can turn the fleeting national exposure given to sexual harassment in the workplace into qualitative changes in schools’ cultures. It is time to recognize that sexual harassment is pervasive, pernicious and an obstacle to receiving an equal educational opportunity.

Our neglect and denial can no longer be allowed to silence the victims/ subjects of sexual harassment or to condone the institutions and individuals who permit it to flourish. If we want true justice for all, we must eliminate sexual harassment from schools.