ERIC Identifier: ED448248
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Schwartz, Wendy
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Urban Education New York NY.
Preventing Student Sexual Harassment. ERIC Digest Number 160.
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 & Hayhow, 1994).
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).
Education about Harassmenet
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,
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).
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 &
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).
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).
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 concerns.
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.
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(1993). Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America's
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MacEachron, A.E. (1998).Violence and lesbian and gay youth. Journal of Gay &
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Protecting students from harassment and hate crime: A guide for schools
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