Characterizing it as an issue that "can undermine the effectiveness of your school system as an organization and your staff as a team," Beverly Collier and C. Thomas Holmes (1989) warn that sexual harassment is a problem administrators should not take lightly. If school leaders maintain an "it can't happen here" attitude or fail to take the problem seriously, they are not doing their part to combat sexual harassment.
Most administrators are interested in addressing the problem in a professional, proactive manner. However, uncertainty exists concerning what constitutes sexual harassment of employees and students and what steps can be taken to drive home the message that it will not be tolerated.
Another thing that complicates the issue is that men and women tend to have different perspectives concerning what constitutes sexual harassment. As Stephanie Riger (1991) notes, "The variable that most consistently predicts variation in people's definition of sexual harassment is the sex of the rater," with men classifying fewer behaviors as harassment. And even when men identify a behavior as harassment, they still often maintain the belief that women will be flattered by it (Riger).
Federal guidelines passed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 1980 can serve as a starting point for those seeking clarity on murky definitional issues. The EEOC classifies sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to the EEOC, sexual harassment encompasses "unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." In the workplace, sexual harassment can be said to have occurred when
(1) submission to such conduct is either explicitly or implicitly made a term or condition of an individual's employment;
(2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions; or
(3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
Quid pro quo and hostile environment are two general categories of sexual harassment. Literally meaning "this for that," quid pro quo occurs when employment (or academic) opportunities or benefits are linked with sexual conduct (Blackwood and Lamb). Conversely, it also includes harassment in which sexual advances are made with the stated or implied threat that if the advances are not accepted, there will be work- or school-related reprisals (Robert Shoop 1992).
A hostile environment involves "unwanted, personally offensive sexual attention" that need not be directly associated with an employment or academic decision involving the person being harassed (Shoop).
Studies also indicate that absenteeism tends to increase among employees who are sexually harassed, work attitudes are adversely affected, and productivity drops (Collier and Holmes). And when students are the target, sexual harassment can rob them of their right to an equal education by interfering with "learning, attendance, course choices, grades, and therefore economic potential" (Strauss).
In addition to the impact of the harassment itself, those who have been harassed often contend with anxiety and ambivalence about whether to report, and they harbor fears about possible retaliation if they decide to file a complaint.
The case involved a Georgia high school student who alleged that a teacher-coach engaged in behavior toward her ranging from unwelcome verbal advances to pressured sexual intercourse on school grounds (Paul Barrett 1992). The ruling permits Franklin to seek damages against the district as well as against a band director who encouraged her to drop the complaint.
Other recent rulings offer some clues concerning the yardstick courts will use to ascertain whether someone has been harassed. For example, in 1991 two courts affirmed that a "reasonable woman" test should be the objective standard in sexual harassment cases where the plaintiff is a woman (Shoop). That is, if a reasonable woman (not a "reasonable man" or "reasonable person"), would judge a working environment to be abusive, that may be sufficient for the court to rule in favor of a female plaintiff. Therefore, Riger advises male policy makers to "think like a woman" when attempting to classify specific behaviors as harassment. Or, perhaps even better, get considerable input from women.
In addition to a sense of moral responsibility, self-interest may spur some administrators to adopt a strong policy since employers that don't have a policy prohibiting sexual harassment are more likely to be held liable than those that do (Blackwood and Lamb).
A good policy, which should address harassment of both employees and students, explains what sexual harassment is and gives some examples of unacceptable conduct, encourages individuals to report any unwelcome sexual conduct, clearly describes grievance procedures and other avenues for recourse, and specifies grounds for taking disciplinary action against offenders. It should also specifically prohibit peer harassment and forbid retaliation against complainants.
Although it is prudent to have a policy, Riger contends that sexual harassment policies often fail to reflect women's viewpoints about what constitutes harassment. Also, grievance procedures outlined in policies may be at odds with women's preferred methods of conflict resolution. Both factors tend to discourage women from reporting harassment (Riger).
Once adopted, a policy must be publicized. Ways of doing this include reviewing it with students and staff at the beginning of each academic year, posting the policy on school bulletin boards, and including it in employee and student handbooks.
Another avenue through which districts can work to raise awareness is by offering training and education about sexual harassment to students, staff, and administrators.
To maintain a sense of moral integrity within their institutions, administrators must do their utmost to ensure that students and employees have a safe, equitable environment in which to learn and work.
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