Policy Shaky on Harassment in Schools
By Rene Sanchez
In recent years, school districts across the country have rushed to strengthen their policies on sexual harassment for teachers and students amid growing fear that incidents of misconduct, and costly lawsuits stemming from them, are rising.
But many educators say that the harassment remains difficult to police and draws a wide range of responses from officials in the schools where it occurs.
There has been so much confusion in schools over what constitutes sexual harassment, either by teacher to student, or by student to student, that the Education Department felt compelled to produce extensive new guidelines on the subject last year.
The department urged schools to consider the age and maturity of students in cases that did not involve a teacher, as well as the severity and persistence of the incidents. It also gave general scenarios to help define harassing behavior in cases that did involve adults, such as a male teacher excessively hugging a female student.
In their zeal to crack down on harassment, and to protect themselves from litigation, many schools now broadly define the offense as virtually any unwelcome physical contact, such as the infamous kiss that a first-grader in North Carolina planted on an unsuspecting classmate two years ago. He was briefly suspended for it.
Data on the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools, among teachers or just among students, are scarce. But in a national survey of junior and senior high school students several years ago, the American Association of University Women found that a large majority said that they had been harassed, either with taunts or touches, by classmates.
Eight-five percent of girls questioned in the survey said that they had been harassed by boys at their schools, and some said the problem began in elementary grades. Many girls also said that the incidents even made them reluctant at times to go to school.
In a few notable instances, the misconduct produced court cases that drew large punishments against the school districts involved.
Nearly two years ago, a jury in San Francisco ordered the school district in nearby Antioch to pay $500,000 to a 14-year-old girl after finding that school officials had ignored her complaints about her classmate, a sixth-grade boy, who frequently made sexual gestures and taunts toward her.
Few awards in other cases have been that large, but they have convinced officials that they could be held liable for any form of sexual harassment on their watch.
"The awareness on this issue in schools is so much greater now," said Doug Fagan, the president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. "Students are feeling greater freedom to come forth, there have been more suits, and there's just the growing sense out there that when this occurs it is an intolerant situation."
The Supreme Court's ruling yesterday on sexual harassment in schools, which protects districts from having to pay damages except in cases where they know of but ignore incidents involving students, immediately raised questions from some groups about whether educators will retreat from the aggressive stance they've shown recently.
"I don't think you're going to see districts slack off, despite the decision," said Michael Simpson, the general counsel of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union. "They're not off the hook, especially because in cases that just involve students a teacher or principal almost always knows something about it."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company