Are There Laws Against Sexual Harassment in Schools?

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Ashamed girl sharing her issues with others, at group therapy

Sexual harassment is traditionally thought of as a problem that arises in an employer-employee relationship. However, cases involving sexual harassment in schools are also common. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network reports that the age group that has the highest risk for rape and sexual assault is 12-34. In fact, 58% of 7th-12th graders experience some form of sexual harassment.

School Liability

In Illinois, the federal courts have recently decided that schools that do not respond appropriately to student-on-student sexual harassment may be held liable for the actions of the harassing student. In other words, the school is responsible not through the student’s actions but through its own actions in failing to address the problem. Schools need not be successful in eliminating the harassment, but their response must be plausibly directed toward putting an end to the known harassment.

Courts have found that if school officials aggressively investigate all complaints of sexual harassment and respond consistently and meaningfully when the complaints are determined to have merit, then liability can be avoided. However, the schools must have actual notice of the harassment, which means that they must have been directly informed in some way.

Determining Punishment

One Illinois case involved a female high school student who was the victim of ongoing verbal and physical sexual harassment by a group of male students for 18 months. The harassment included unwanted touching, sexually explicit talk, and the deliberate exposure of one of the harasser’s genitals in front of the female student. Both the student and the parents complained to the school principals, counselors, directors, and other officials on numerous occasions. The school suspended two of the male students for just 10 days and transferred one student out of the female student’s class. Certainly, the punishment seems like a slap on the wrist.  The court found that the female student could pursue a lawsuit against the school for failing to take prompt, appropriate action.