by David J. Welsh, Ph.D., LSSP
Most of us have heard about incidents in which children as young as first-graders were
disciplined for “sexual harassment” because of seemingly innocent behaviors such as a peck on a
classmate’s cheek. If you’re like me, your reaction was a mixture of amusement and amazement, and
you chalked the incidents up to overreaction.
But two undeniable realities exist beyond these isolated but headline-grabbing overreactions.
First, a surprising number of school-age children do report sexual harassment by peers. One 1993
survey found that as many as four out of five secondary-age students had reported incidents of
sexual harassment at school. Secondly, court decisions make it clear that schools will be held
accountable for addressing student-on-student sexual harassment and can be sued for damages by the
One such case, Davis vs. Monroe County Board of Education, began in 1993 when a male Georgia
fifth-grader subjected a female classmate to five months of verbal and physical sexual harassment.
The harassment ended when the girl and her mother took criminal action against the boy. Later,
they sued the school district on the grounds that its failure to take action to stop the
harassment violated Title IX, the federal law that prohibits schools receiving federal funds from
discriminating on the basis of sex. In May 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a landmark
decision in the case. It found that schools can be held liable (and parents can sue for damages)
when school officials have knowledge of student-on-student sexual harassment and fail to take
reasonable steps to stop it.
The Davis decision and others like it make one thing clear: Educators have an inescapable
responsibility to prevent student-on-student sexual harassment and intervene directly when it
occurs. However, to be able to do that, educators must understand what kinds of behavior
constitute sexual harassment.
What is student-on-student sexual harassment?
Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) make a
distinction between two types of sexual harassment: (a) quid pro quo (literally meaning “this for
that”) harassment, where academic opportunities or benefits are linked with sexual conduct, and
(b) hostile environment harassment, where unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature is considered so
severe, pervasive and offensive that it deprives the victim of access to educational opportunities
Given this distinction, student-on-student harassment falls into the hostile environment
category, but the OCR goes to great lengths to explain that “all relevant circumstances” must be
considered when determining whether or not a hostile environment exists. Such circumstances might
include the type, frequency and duration of the conduct; the number of individuals involved; the
ages and genders of the alleged harassers and victims; and the size of the school, locations of
the incidents, and context in which they occurred. The OCR stresses the importance of using
“common sense and judgment” in defining sexual harassment so that schools do not overreact to
simple acts of childish behavior or immature conduct.
So what behaviors might constitute peer-on-peer sexual harassment? According to the OCR, if
male students repeatedly taunt a female peer about her breasts, it might constitute a hostile
environment. However, a comment from one student to another indicating that she has a nice figure
probably does not. Similarly, a simple request for a date would not create a hostile environment,
but persistent requests in an intimidating or threatening manner might.
What can educators do?
When students behave toward each other in ways that might be considered sexual harassment (meaning
the behavior might deprive a student of the opportunity to fully benefit from the educational
program), one conclusion seems inescapable: Doing nothing is always the wrong response! Everyone
in the school building—teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, coaches, nurses and principals—has
a responsibility to be aware, informed and responsive. Beyond the administrative safeguards of
written policies and procedures pertaining to sexual harassment, educators should consider the
- Be aware of your district’s policies and procedures pertaining to sexual harassment of
students by students. Who is in charge of investigating allegations, and what is the procedure
for filing a grievance?
- Send a clear and consistent message to your students that you will not tolerate harassment.
When you see such behavior occurring, tell the offender to stop and take appropriate
- If a student reports harassment, pay attention! Don’t minimize the student’s concerns or
justify the behavior of the harassers. Avoid making statements such as “Boys will be boys,” or
“You need to learn how to stand up for yourself.” Report all such complaints to the appropriate
administrator and document that you’ve done so.
- If necessary, provide increased adult supervision of activities or environments in which
incidents have occurred. Extra precautions might also be necessary in order to prevent reprisals
against the victim.
- Incorporate age-appropriate lessons into the curriculum to increase awareness of sexual
harassment and promote respect for others. One excellent resource is a videotape series called
Flirting or Hurting? produced by the WGBY television station and the Wellesley College Center
for Research on Women. To order a copy, call (800) 228-4630 or check out the online teacher’s
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attorney. Eligible ATPE members should contact the ATPE Member Legal Services Department using our
online system, MLSIS.
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