According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 59 percent of secondary schools report incidents of sexual harassment.
A large portion of these sexual harassment reports stem from the actions of school employees. Scenario's like the ones listed here are not uncommon in junior and senior high school.
"Should I tell my principal that Bob said he was planning to sleep with one of his students during the class trip? I think I will just keep out of it; that's their business."
"I'm in 10th grade and feel uncomfortable when Mrs. Atkins rubs my shoulders and gets real close to me, but I don't know what to do about it?"
"I am going to tell the principal that Mr. Harris winked at me and rubbed up against me in the hallway. That should get him in trouble for giving me a D on my paper."
"I can't believe I saw our football coach coming out of the shower with his players, while taking a shortcut through the boy's locker room. It's probably not a big deal and I am overreacting, but I wouldn't want my son to shower with his coach."
In my practice I regularly consult on cases after a report of sexual harassment. The parents sue the school after they discover that their child had been engaged in a sexual relationship with a teacher.
Students sometimes conceal the sexual harassment because they believe they are in love and other times because they are assaulted against their will and ashamed to tell anyone from fear of retaliation or that no one will believe them.
Teachers and even principals too many times see another teacher and a student in situations that ought to raise their suspicions of inappropriate conduct. Usually there are clear signs that a teacher is acting inappropriately witnessed by teachers and students, but too often those red flags go on unnoticed unless the school is pro-active about raising awareness and providing training on reporting and setting sexual harassment boundaries.
Parents place their children in the trust of school employees so that children will learn academically, socially and emotionally. School employees and administrators have a duty to live up to that expectation and to protect students from harm including sexual harassment.
A clear definition and understanding of behavioral boundaries and an understanding of how to respond when those boundaries are crossed will protect schools, school employees and students.
Employee behavior that might lead to sexual harassment charges include:
- Tutoring a student in a secluded area or behind a closed door;
- Taking students home after school in private vehicles;
- Texting or interacting with students via social media;
- Making suggestive comments to students or acting in a flirtatious manner;
- Inviting students to their homes;
- Touching students inappropriately and when they do not want to be touched.
School employees always must be aware of how student encounters might be viewed and interpreted by others. If a school employee observes a situation between another school employee and a student, he or she has the duty to follow up according to school policy and procedure, as well as state reporting laws on reporting abuse or sexual harassment to appropriate agencies.
On the other hand, if a school employee is confronted with a student's inappropriate behavior, he or she has the responsibility and duty to take direct steps to stop that behavior.
School employees should take following proactive steps to stop sexual harassment:
- Stop the behavior and make the student aware of the school's sexual harassment policy;
- Document the student's behavior;
- Communicate the student's behavior to school officials and the student's parent; and
- Notify his or her supervisor.
Schools should set appropriate boundaries between students and school employees. Those boundaries should be clearly communicated to the entire school community every year.
Provide training to school employees on the school's policies, procedures and sexual harassment laws to ensure that everyone understands the boundaries and how to respond to inappropriate behavior and report it according to policy.
These measures will help schools make it a safe environment for learning, protect school employees and students from sexual harassment and protect the school and administrators from costly lawsuits.
Dr. Edward F. Dragan has spent more than 40 years in education as a teacher, school superintendent, and an official in the New Jersey Department of Education.
As the founder of Education Management Consulting, LLChe is now a legal consultant and an education expert for high profile school bullying cases. He has appeared on NBC Nightly News, Today on NBC, PBS’s One on One, The Morning Show on Fox, The Operah Show and others.
Dr. Dragan has a doctorate in Education Administration from Rutgers University, a master’s in Education Law from the University of New Hampshire School of Law and a master’s in Special Education from The College of New Jersey.
He is a Certified School Administrator and is the author of The Bully Action Guide: How to Help Your Child and How to Get Your School to Listen.