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K-12 Schools Not Immune to Sexual Harassment

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We’re coming up on the one-year anniversary of the #MeToo movement, and sexual harassment remains a key workplace problem employers are trying to solve.

Sexual harassment is as much a problem in schools as it is in the average corporate office. According to a nationally representative survey conducted by Education Week, 40 percent of teachers and school administrators report having witnessed or been the victim of sexual harassment or assault in their jobs.

What the Numbers Say

The Edweek report found the most common forms of sexual assault were unwanted flirting (69 percent), sexual jokes (67 percent), staring or winking (39 percent), and persistence in asking someone out after being told “no” (21 percent).

Some other key findings include:

  • 25 percent of female teachers and 6 percent of male teachers have personally experienced sexual assault or harassment.
  • 41 percent of respondents who observed or experienced harassment said the experience created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
  • 59 percent of respondents who observed or experienced sexual harassment didn’t report it.
  • 71 percent of respondents who reported the harassment did so to their supervisor, while only 25 percent reported the conduct to HR.
  • 24 percent of respondents who reported the sexual harassment said no action was taken by administration.
  • 64 percent of respondents who didn’t report sexual harassment said they didn’t think it was serious enough to merit a report, while 47 percent didn’t think anything would be done about it and 33 percent feared retaliation.

What the Law Requires

Sexual harassment of employees is unlawful discrimination on the basis of sex and is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct when at least one of the following conditions is met:  

  • Submission to the conduct is explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment.  
  • Submission to or rejection of the conduct is used as a basis for employment actions affecting the employee.  
  • The conduct unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or otherwise offensive work environment.

Districts are required by law to exercise reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior. An employer is strictly liable for sexual harassment by a supervisor if the employee suffers a tangible employment action, so it’s crucial districts know what to do when a complaint arises.

What HR Can Do

The main priority for HR is to create a safe environment for reporting sexual misconduct. Whatever reporting system your district has in place should be quick, user-friendly, and confidential. Employees shouldn’t have any fear of retaliation for filing a claim.

Instilling a culture of safety requires a balanced effort in written policies and effectively implementing those rules with consistency and transparency. As noted above, 47 percent of respondents didn’t report sexual harassment because they didn’t think anything would be done about it. That means either:

  1. Districts don’t have policies to take action on sexual harassment reports, or
  2. Districts have policies, but don’t follow them when a case is presented.

This is unacceptable in both scenarios. Districts have a responsibility to take steps to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace and their policy prohibiting it should include a description of the types of conduct that constitute sexual harassment and an effective reporting procedure. It also should provide an alternate reporting procedure where an employee is reluctant or unable to report to his or her immediate supervisor—remember, 33 percent of respondents didn’t report misconduct out of fear of retaliation.

After policies are put in place, it’s important districts take their own rules seriously and respond promptly to all complaints. Employees want to see swift investigatory and disciplinary action, and they want to know their rights as witnesses or victims are protected. That’s how a culture is created—written procedures and prompt action in accordance with those procedures.

Conducting a training for supervisors on how to respond to complaints of sexual harassment without retaliating is a good idea for all districts. It’s important employees in positions of power learn how to respond to all reports with utmost sincerity, making the complainant feel comfortable and aware retaliation is prohibited by the district and confidentiality is guaranteed.

Establishing a safe culture of reporting for victims and witnesses is vital, but it’s in vain if there’s no punishment administered to the offender. There’s no good in feeling heard if the harasser is exempt from the consequences of his or her actions. After the investigation is complete and the complainant’s story is corroborated, districts must take swift, appropriate action to sustain the safe workplace environment and make sure employees know sexual harassment isn’t tolerated.

For more guidance on handling sexual harassment, taking preventive action, and investigating allegations, search the HR Library (member login required). We also address the topic in the Model Employee Handbook.  For community colleges, see the College Employee Handbook.

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