Preventing Student Sexual Harassment
ERIC Identifier: ED448248
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education New York NY.
Peer sexual harassment among students is a complex, and widespread, problem with
significant effects on the perpetrator, the victim, and the school environment. While
most targets do not report harassment, surveys indicate that well over half of all
students have been harassed, with females, youth of color, and gays most frequently
targeted (American Association of University Women, AAUW, 1993; Gustavsson, &
MacEachron, 1998; Shoop & Hayhow, 1994). Schools, under both social and legal
pressure, are developing policies for keeping their environment safe for all students and
procedures for dealing appropriately with harassment when it occurs. This digest
reviews effective anti-harassment strategies currently employed by schools.
PEER SEXUAL HARASSMENT
Sexual harassment is considered any "unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that
interferes with" the life of the target(s); it is "unsolicited and nonreciprocal" (Shoop &
Edwards, 1994, p. 17). Harassment includes use of sexist terms, comments about body
parts, sexual advances, unwanted touching, gestures, taunting, sexual graffiti, and
rumor mongering about a classmate's sexual identity or activity. Generally, any behavior
of a sexual nature that provokes undesirable, uncomfortable feelings in a target can be
considered harassment. Repeated harassment is bullying (Sexual Harassment
Guidance, 1997; Stein & Sjostrom, 1994).
Experts agree that sexual harassment is about power, not sex. The deeply ingrained
societal beliefs that women should be subservient to men, and that "real men" are
macho, foster boys' convictions that harassment is an acceptable way to communicate
with girls. The advertising and entertainment media perpetuate these prejudices and
stereotypes, and family behaviors may do so as well (Shoop & Edwards, 1994). Further,
the current practice of integrating girls into classes and activities previously dominated
by boys can threaten boys' self-concept of superiority, and cause them to act out alone
or in groups (Shoop & Edwards, 1994).
The lives of girls targeted for harassment are often severely compromised. Targets may
become truant and less academically successful. They may feel self-conscious, and
even develop psychopathologies and physical symptoms (AAUW, 1993; Shoop &
Legally, sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination, and is
specifically prohibited by several Federal laws and an array of state laws. Title VII of the
Civil Rights Act of 1964 has been extended by some courts to include peer harassment
in school. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 has been used to financially
compensate victims of harassment in schools. Another Federal civil rights law, 42
U.S.C. 1983, has also been used successfully to sue schools that failed to protect
students from peer harassment (Sexual Harassment Guidance, 1997).
SCHOOL INITIATIVES ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT
A serious effort keep a school free of sexual harassment involves the commitment of
the whole school (and district) community and requires a systemic, multidimensional
approach and long-term educational strategies. The goals are to maintain an
environment that fosters appropriate and respectful behavior and cooperative
interactions among students; to employ only non-sexist curriculum and teaching
methods; to promote staff modeling of non-sexist behavior; and to indicate clearly that
harassment will not be tolerated (Brandenburg, 1997; Protecting Students, 1999; Shoop
& Edwards, 1994).
- Student Education about Harassment
All education about harassment needs to be age and grade appropriate. It should
describe what types of conduct constitute harassment; but, to reduce the possibility of
establishing a climate of fear, the curriculum should help students distinguish between
contact perceived as menacing (and a violation of the target's privacy) and flirting, which
can be desired, feels good, makes the recipient happy, and increases self-esteem
(Shoop & Hayhow, 1994; Steineger, 1997).
A curriculum on human sexuality can easily cover harassment, but the problem can also
be discussed in other courses: history, social studies, contemporary issues, English,
and health education. Co-teaching by males and females sends "a powerful
message...about the relevance of sexual harassment to both sexes" (Stein & Sjostrom,
1994, p. 3). Classes should include both male and female students so they can gain an
understanding of each other's perceptions. It is critical not to make the males feel
threatened (Brandenburg, 1997).
Because empowerment is one of the best ways to prevent harassment, schools need to
build students' self-esteem. Girls can be taught "assertiveness skills" to enable them to
express their feelings clearly and help them stop harassment should it occur. Boys can
be taught how to communicate with girls in positive ways. Discussions of sex roles and
gender stereotypes can provide valuable information about both sexes. Guest speakers,
videos, printed materials, and web sites can enliven discussions. Finally, curricula
should help students understand that engaging in harassment is a choice that someone
makes (Brandenburg, 1997; Protecting Students, 1999; Shoop & Edwards, 1994).
- Anti-Harassment Policy
Every school (and district) should have a policy that prohibits all forms of sexual
harassment and mandates equitable treatment for all students. It should be
comprehensive, clearly written, and sufficiently explicit so that students and parents, as
well as educators, know what is expected of everyone. It should also be reevaluated
and reissued annually.
The policy should urge the targets of sexual harassment to report their victimization
promptly. It should announce that all complaints will be full heeded, and that retaliation
against complainants will be not tolerated. The policy should state that unbiased
investigators, who are named, will conduct a full hearing. It should also indicate that
complainants' statements will be kept as confidential as is possible, that complainants
do not have to face their harassers, and that complainants can end the school's informal
practice at any time and make a formal criminal complaint. It should also state that the
goal of the investigation will be a fair resolution that includes, if warranted, appropriate
and corrective action. Possible consequences for harassment should be specified
(Shoop & Hayhow, 1994; Steineger, 1997).
A school's anti-harassment policy must be well-publicized throughout the school and
community, through public posting and age-appropriate discussion. It should also be
provided to families (Protecting Students, 1999; Shoop & Edwards, 1994).
- Responses to Harassment
Attempts to elicit information should give everyone involved (including witnesses) the
opportunity to describe the harassment and convey relevant information in their own
words. The targets should be asked about the effects of the harassment on them
personally and the solution to the problem that they desire, such as cessation of the
offensive behavior, an apology, a transfer out of the class or activity where the
harassment occurred, counseling for the harasser, school punishment of the harasser,
or the filing of criminal charges. They should be given support, including counseling if
warranted (Shoop & Edwards, 1994; Shoop & Hayhow, 1994).
The consequences for harassers should include re-mediation as well as punishment;
they need to appreciate that their actions are harmful and to learn more acceptable
behavior (Protecting Students, 1999). Punishment should fit the offense in severity, both
because that is fair and because under- or over-reactions diminish respect for the
problem of harassment (Stein, 1999).
Schools can also choose to use the "student empowerment approach," whereby targets
confront their harassers. This strategy, which prevents accused harassers from claiming
their behavior was welcomed, can be effective; one-third stop their offensive behavior
when directly confronted (Shoop & Edwards, 1994). Meetings should occur only in the
presence of the school investigator. Alternatively, targets can write their harassers a
letter, fully stating what they believe happened, how they feel about it, and what they
want to happen next. Targets should never be coerced into attending a meeting or
writing a letter; and the accused should not be forced into a meeting (Protecting
Students, 1999; Stein, 1999).
- Professional Development
Schools should schedule a half to a full day of interactive training on sexual harassment
and violence, facilitated by an expert in the field, for all staff members. Training should
cover the nature of harassment, ways to spot it and changes in students which suggest
they are being targeted, procedures for reporting harassment, and strategies for dealing
with the claimants and the accused. Staff designated as investigators and teachers
whose curricula contain information about harassment should receive additional training
(Protecting Students, 1999; Shoop & Edwards, 1994; Stein, 1999; Steineger, 1997).
- Family Involvement
Children learn how to view, and respond to, the world from a variety of sources,
especially their families, who provide a de facto education through their own conduct.
Parents can also help their children make judgments about what they see and hear in
the media and community, build self-esteem that deflects negative emotions resulting
from victimization, and develop skills to resist personal impulses and peer pressure to
behave badly. They can respond to the targeting of their children by believing what they
say and helping them report incidents (Shoop & Hayhow, 1994).
Schools can educate parents about sexual harassment through meetings and
workshops that explain their anti-harassment policy and enlist their support and
suggestions. They can also describe gender-fair child-rearing strategies and offer
suggestions for parent-child discussions on related issues: sex education, sex equity,
and sexism (Brandenburg, 1997; Stein, 1999).
Parents who believe that their children's school does not have a comprehensive policy,
or that its staff does not understand the relationship between sexual stereotyping,
sexism, and sexual harassment, have an obligation to seek a response to their
While the overall climate of tolerance has been increasing in the U.S., hostility--and
even exhortations to violence--toward groups prone to verbal and physical victimization
expressed in some popular music and films have become more pronounced. Youth are
most susceptible to these messages, and unchecked verbal and physical sexual
harassment in children can lead to even more destructive behavior when they become
adults, such as domestic violence and hate crime (Shoop & Hayhow, 1994). Thus, the
need for schools and families to deliver a strong and effective anti-harassment message
has become even more necessary.
This Digest was developed by the ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, with
funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of
Education, under contract no. ED-99-CO-0035. The opinions in this Digest do not
necessarily reflect the position or policies of OERI or the Department of Education. This Digest is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.
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