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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

Slippery Justice

School districts today often deal with incidents of sexual harassment in arbitrary ways—sometimes reading students the riot act and at other times, looking the other way. How should districts address the issue?

Your skirt is sexually harassing me." What used to be phrased as "Your skirt is turning me on," and therefore "I am not responsible for my conduct" has become a new way of blaming girls. Armed with '90s lingo, teenage boys across America have redefined sexual harassment, casting themselves as victims. Boys not only flaunt their new victimhood status to female classmates but also assert their claims to teachers and administrators, who are enforcing new codes of conduct to prevent sexual harassment. Not far beneath the surface of this clever turnabout statement lie feelings of confusion, resentment, and in some cases, hostility, directed at both girls and adults in the school.
The fact that boys are making such statements is in one sense a good sign because it indicates that the expression "sexual harassment" has been absorbed into the vocabulary of adolescents—and, in some instances, they are using the term accurately. In addition, some boys have learned that commonplace behaviors, gestures, and expressions toward females are now considered suspect, if not legally defined as sexual harassment. Thus, they have toned down or eliminated, at least in front of their teachers, overtly assaultive behaviors like bra-snapping, skirt-flipping, and body groping. Here's how some 8th grade boys commented on the change in their peers: The person at our lunch table who used to be a sexual harasser has stopped and actually turned nice when all the girls at our table told him to stop or they would get Mr. [teacher] into it. I don't think he realized that what he was doing was making us uncomfortable. The sexual harassment [curriculum] is really doing the school some good. One of the harassers has stopped goosing and touching girls. I never thought I'd see the day. He no longer pinches girls and rubs up against them in the hall. Now I feel a lot more comfortable in art class with him.Despite a new awareness of the term, however, the understanding of sexual harassment is by no means universal among students and teachers, male and female. In fact, the confusion may in part result from the "slippery justice" applied in schools.

Causes of the Confusion

The confusion and resentment of young males can be traced to a variety of sources. Conduct once regarded as typical adolescent behavior or construed as flirting has in the past few years been labeled sexual harassment (Stein 1995, Eaton 1993, Pitsch 1994). This reformulation comes as a shock to many boys who, when chastised, defend themselves by saying, "No one ever told me I couldn't do that." Indeed, there is truth in that statement. In the past, school personnel rarely named or interrupted inappropriate gender harassment.
Over a short period of time, boys have perceived that girls have a new power over them. Once girls claim this legal power to designate particular conduct as sexual harassment, boys are at the mercy of the school's sexual harassment policy and procedures. Boys find themselves getting in trouble, sometimes big trouble, ranging from reprimands and suspensions to expulsions and lawsuits.
In part, the adults in the school environment are responsible for the confusion and resentment manifested by boys and girls alike. Adults have often —alized the conversation about sexual harassment into a boring, pedantic subject. Simultaneously, they have instituted a rather slippery form of justice. Examples include assemblies where students are read the riot act of do's and don'ts of sexual harassment; pedagogically flat classroom lessons, which consist of list-making and reading aloud of the school's policy and legal definitions; and finger-pointing lectures by school board attorneys, district attorneys, or police officers who try to frighten the students into enlightenment. The unspoken ideology that links all of these discussions is one that reduces boys to hormones and characterizes girls as temptresses or prudes.
Further, the manner in which adults have handled sexual harassment disputes has been arbitrary, inconsistent, or rigid and uninspired. Not long ago, the discipline consisted of a wink and a scolding by the principal. Respondents to a survey on sexual harassment in the September 1992 issue of Seventeen magazine noted the dismissive way in which their appeals for help were regarded and the cavalier manner in which the harassers were treated (Stein et al. 1993): School administration needs to view this as a serious problem. In my case, I was receiving comments pertaining to sexual parts of my body, and being asked to respond to sexually explicit jokes. This went on for over six months. I was fed up.After reporting this three times to the administration, I was told that these boys were "flirting" and had a "crush" on me. I was disgusted with the actions of the administration. They told me they would give the boys a strict warning. I saw them do it. I don't think asking someone to stop harassing another person is a strict warning.The worse part is that they gave them the same "warning" on three different occasions. The harassing never stopped, and I was humiliated. I'm scared. If you can't feel comfortable at school, how can you get a good education? Something has got to change.14-year-old, IllinoisIn my case there were three boys touching me, and—trust me—they were big boys. I'd tell them to stop but they wouldn't! This went on for about six months until I was in the back of the classroom minding my own business, when all of them backed me into a corner and started touching me all over. So I went running out of the room, and the teacher yelled at me and I had to stay in my seat for the rest of the class.After the class I told the principal, and him and the boys had a little talk. And after the talk was up, the boys came out laughing 'cause they got no punishment.12-year-old, Michigan

How Schools Are Coping

  • Bans on physical touching. In Millis, Massachusetts, the school district has banned hand-holding, hugging, and other affectionate physical contact between students on school grounds (Maroney 1995). School administrators devised this stunning prohibition after months of ignoring allegations by 11 females that a star football player had sexually assaulted them. The young man later pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape and several counts of assault, for which he earned an 18-month prison sentence.Ironically, both approaches—denial of the allegations and the ban on hand-holding—may be indicative of the panic that has set in because of the threat of lawsuits (Maroney 1995, Pitsch 1995). After much ridicule in the press and by the educational community, the Millis School District is reconsidering the ban. Many other districts, however, ban physical contact among students as the remedy to sexual harassment.
  • Face-to-face meetings. Another way school districts have tried to resolve sexual harassment disputes is to require students to face-off with each other, or sometimes in the presence of a peer mediator. While some educators view face-offs as an opportunity for victimized students to feel empowered or reclaim their voice, this questionable technique can buy the school district a lawsuit.Such was the situation in December 1992 at Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. After an assistant principal required a girl to confront her attacker, alone in a room, the conversation resulted in a screaming match between the two, as well as a lawsuit against the district (Peller 1993; Sherrod 1993, 1994; Sullivan 1993). The district's December 1993 letter of agreement, signed by Superintendent Paul L. Vance, with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, stated that it will no longer "require or direct a complainant to attend a face-to-face meeting, or confront in any way, the alleged harasser in a complaint of sexual harassment" (Montgomery County Public Schools 1993).
  • Writing letters to harassers. Another technique gaining popularity with school personnel is to have the target or victim of sexual harassment write a letter to the harasser. Mary Rowe (1981) first developed this technique; later she and I adapted it for use with high school students (Stein 1982).Collaborating with an adult trained in this technique, the student may find writing a letter to her harasser a positive, even therapeutic, experience. In fact, letter-writing can become part of a larger "talk back" curriculum of activism and empowerment. Cooperation with a school staff member accomplishes other important goals: the target of the harassment discusses personal feelings about the incident with someone; the incident is documented; and only a few people are involved, thus maintaining the privacy rights of both the alleged harasser and the victim.Letter-writing, however, is not a comprehensive approach to sexual harassment. It does nothing to address the negative experiences of students who witnessed or heard about the incident. For that reason, letter-writing cannot take the place of strategies such as training programs, support groups, discipline codes, and grievance procedures. Most egregiously, this technique places the burden of responsibility on the target of the harassment, and not on the school personnel whose responsibility it is to create an environment that is free from sexual harassment.
  • The school as courthouse. Other districts have imported the rights of citizens as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution—that of a trial by a jury of one's peers and for the accused to confront his or her accuser—into disciplinary proceedings for sexual harassment accusations. Like it or not, the courts have made distinctions between the rights of citizens and those of minor students in schools, resulting in fewer rights in the schoolhouse.Somehow, however, the higher standard seems to be invoked only for sexual harassment disputes—and not for other altercations where administrators typically act swiftly and unequivocally. Sexual harassment allegations seem to be regarded as an opportunity for a consensus-building moment between the disputants, or for the outcome to be determined by a popular vote of the student body.Consider the classic example of a popular athlete accused of sexual harassment or assault. The young woman who comes forward with this charge is not only blamed for having brought the behavior upon herself, but she is also treated as a pariah for jeopardizing the reputation of a popular boy and as a traitor to the entire school for damaging its reputation. Imagine the outcome if this case were to be put before a tribunal of one's peers: the popular boy would probably win, hands down. The deleterious lessons left in the aftermath might give other boys reason to believe that they, too, could get away with the same conduct.
  • Restraining orders or orders of protection. Other strategies that have found their way into schools include restraining orders. In January 1991, in Massachusetts, as in many other states, couples involved in "significant dating relationships" were added to the list of people eligible for court orders, known as 209a's, to protect them from harm (Locy 1994).In cases such as the above scenario (between a popular male student and an accusing female), administrators have found themselves in the untenable position of having to enforce restraining orders in their buildings. Other scenarios might include a teenage couple ending their dating relationship under bitter circumstances, or a student stalking another student who is not interested in having a close, personal relationship. Given all the obstacles to enforcing restraining orders in the outside world, how can we expect school administrators to perform at a more vigilant level than that of the police?

When Boys Are Targets

Boys, too, are protected by federal law Title IX. Very few, however, have filed official sexual harassment complaints or lawsuits. When they have, the harassers have been identified as other boys, and the cases have been dismissed or denied. No doubt boys receive a great deal of social pressure, from both their peers and their elders, to not define unwanted sexual attention coming from the girls as "sexual harassment" or as "unwanted."
Most troubling to me is the conduct that is condoned in the name of initiation rites—as a new member of the school community or a sports team. These rites of passage, called hazing, are often sexually violent, but they are not viewed as sexual harassment, let alone as violence, and are not condemned by the adults. This failure to notice and name such incidents as inappropriate conduct has allowed the double standard to be reinvented: boys get chastised and into trouble when they sexually harass girls, but when boys are targets of sexual harassment, the events are overlooked, excused as a rite of passage or regarded as an honor. No wonder boys are resentful about the increased attention placed on sexual harassment.

Where Do We Stand?

We've looked at a variety of ways that school districts have attempted to respond to incidents of sexual harassment. Most of them don't work, and some are foolhardy. So, how should districts address the issue of sexual harassment?
First and foremost, sexual harassment should be viewed in the same manner as violations of civil rights laws. Sexual harassment and sex discrimination are part of our nation's laws on civil rights. Discrimination or harassment on the basis of sex should not be trivialized or ignored.
Moreover, educators need to recognize that they cannot wait until a problem occurs to address the subject of sexual harassment. By then, such incidents will be hard to keep under control. In the frenzy of a crisis, school personnel often try to keep the incident contained to those involved in the dispute, leaving most faculty and students in the dark. This practice, although perhaps well intended, may backfire. Often the rumors that surround an episode of sexual harassment are more difficult to quash than the incident itself is to resolve. Suffice it to say, the entire school community needs to be considered whenever sexual harassment incidents arise—bystanders and observers are at risk, too, of absorbing the bitter lessons of sexual harassment.
A whole-school approach to the problem of sexual harassment involves several elements. The first is to plan for teachable moments through the curriculum. Using age-appropriate, teacher-led, lively, sequential classroom lessons, the topic must travel into mainstream discourse and into the public arena of the classroom. Take care that classroom lessons and discussions do not demonize boys, present violent behaviors as inevitable or expected, or scare students from forming close relationships.
Second, everyone in the school community—administrators, teachers, coaches, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers—needs staff development that includes ample time for interactions, case studies, reflection, and controversy. Groups of students can attend the training and then instruct their peers.
For example, in 1993, at East High School in Anchorage, Alaska, a multiracial group of male and female students made a two-year commitment to serve as peer leaders. Initially trained by me in April 1994, these students in turn have trained student groups throughout the city. (Guidance counselors and other interested faculty and parents also attended the training.) The students have also served as co-leaders, along with their guidance counselors and teachers, to instruct other faculty in the city's schools. As students graduate, new students are recruited. The model of student leaders can be easily replicated in other schools, particularly where student support teams or student-led training teams are already in place to conduct workshops on drug and alcohol use.
Third, we need to offer compassionate responses, not just punitive ones, to students who are involved in harassing or abusive interpersonal relationships. Offering counseling groups to boys who harass or batter their girlfriends may go a lot further than merely suspending them. Finally, involving the parents/guardians of the students in the school's commitment to create a safe and equitable learning environment reinforces this effort beyond the schoolyard.
Above all, schools must consider sexual harassment as a matter of social injustice (Stein and Sjostrom 1994). Sexual harassment violates fundamental democratic principles, and we ought to discuss the problem in a way that highlights those principles. If schools are to be agents of democracy, helping to create citizens ready to participate in the democracy, we need to practice democracy in our schools. That means putting at the forefront conversations and lessons about social justice, including sexual harassment, and finding mechanisms for justice that are worthy of a democratic institution in a democratic society.

Bigelow, B. (1991). "Talking Back to Columbus: Teaching for Justice and Hope." In Rethinking Columbus. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, Ltd., pp. 38-43.

Eaton, S. (July/August 1993). "Sexual Harassment at an Early Age: New Cases Are Changing the Rules for Schools." Harvard Education Letter 9, 4: 1-4.

Lewin, T. (February 8, 1993). "New Laws Address Old Problems: The Terror of a Stalker's Threats." The New York Times A1, B10.

Locy, T. (April 14, 1994). "Dates, Families Driven to Court for Protection from Violent Youths." The Boston Globe 25, 33.

Maroney, T. (January 21, 1995). "Coming Unhinged Over Hand-Holding Ban." The Boston Globe 1, 9.

Montgomery County (Md.) Public Schools, No. 03931512. (December 13, 1993). Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, Philadelphia, Pa., Letter of Assurances.

Peller, G. (July 25, 1993). "Blackboard Jungle '93: Coping with Groping and Worse. For Girls, High School Sometimes Feels like Tailhook." The Washington Post, C3.

Pitsch, M. (November 9, 1994). "OCR Stepping up Civil-Rights Enforcement"; "OCR May Review Boy-on-Boy Sexual Harassment Case." Education Week 14, 10: 15, 20.

Pitsch, M. (June 21, 1995). "A Force to Be Reckoned With." Education Week 14, 39: 28-35.

Rowe, M. P. (May/June 1981). "Dealing with Sexual Harassment." Harvard Business Review 59, 3: 42-46.

Sherrod, L. (January 20, 1993). "Vance Studies Harassment Complaints. Alleged Assaults at Blair Draw Attention to Policy." The Silver Spring (Md.) Record 1,16.

Sherrod, L. (January 5, 1994). "Blair Sexual Harassment Investigation Closed." The Burtonsville (Md.) Gazette 1, 12.

Stein, N., ed. (1982, 1983, 1986). Who's Hurt and Who's Liable: Sexual Harassment in Massachusetts Schools. Quincy: Massachusetts Department of Education, Civil Rights/Chapter 622 Project, 350 Main St., Malden, MA 02148 (original work published in 1979).

Stein, N., N. Marshall, and L. Tropp. (1993). Secrets in Public: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools. A Report on the Results of a Seventeen Magazine Survey. Wellesley, Mass.: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women.

Stein, N. and L. Sjostrom. (1994). Flirting or Hurting? A Teacher's Guide on Student to Student Sexual Harassment in Grades 6-12. Washington D.C.: National Education Association.

Stein, N. (1995). "Sexual Harassment in K–12 Schools: The Public Performance of Gendered Violence." The Harvard Educational Review, Special Issue on Violence and Youth 65, 2: 145-162.

Sullivan, K. (January 15, 1993). "Harassment Complaints Grip School. Officials at Blair High Face Student Protest, Threat of 2nd Lawsuit." The Washington Post, D1, 6.

End Notes

1 Selections are from the ethnographies that 8th grade students kept as part of a curriculum development project that involved close to 50 classroom teachers in grades 6-12 throughout Massachusetts in the fall of 1993. This project resulted in Flirting or Hurting? (1994).

2 "Talk back" curriculum is a pedagogy and a habit of encouraging students to question taken-for-granted social practices. For more information, see Bigelow 1991.

3 As of July 1995, according to Julie Goldscheid, a lawyer at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York, 49 states have anti-stalking statutes. This is an increase from 31 states as of February 1993 (Lewin 1993).

4 The two cases of boy-to-boy sexual harassment were in the first instance filed with the U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights; and in the second instance in federal district court: Sauk Rapids-Rice School District #47, MN, no. 05-93-1142. Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, Chicago (June 23, 1993). Seamons v. Snow, 864 F. Supp. 1111 (D. Utah, 1994).

5 Federal Title IX reads, in part: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance."

6 For more information, contact Susan Haines, Guidance Department, East High School, 4025 E. Northern Lights Blvd, Anchorage, AK 99508-3599 (HainesSue@MSMail.asd.k12.ak.us).

Nan Stein has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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