When Students Sexually Harass Teachers

Aug 30, 2013 • Academia, Legal

no safeguards for teachers who are sexually harassed by students

Last fall, a teacher writing under the pseudonym GracieABD, issued her 168 students forms to help her and administrators evaluate her teaching. The forms, to be filled out anonymously, featured a variety of questions about performance and what might help students get more out of a class.

“Later that afternoon, I started going through the responses,” GracieABD wrote at the group blog Tenure, She Wrote. “It was encouraging to see that, in general, responses to the first two questions indicated I was getting better, which was gratifying given the amount of time and energy I spent re-developing the class. … Somewhere towards the end of the ~160 evaluations, I came across one that answered question #2 [“What could I be doing better to help you learn?”] with: ‘Teach naked.'”

News outlets do a stand-up job of publicizing incidents of impropriety on the parts of teachers, whether it’s because they are sleeping with students or because they are hiding previous involvement in some facet of the sex industry, but we never hear about the harassment that teachers and other faculty face at the hands of their own students. It’s not that it doesn’t happen — a survey by the American Association of University Women found that 36 percent of high school students report instances of student-on-teacher harassment, with four percent of students polled self-disclosing their harassment of a teacher.

In Teachers as Sexual Harassment Victims, Richard D. Shane paints a picture of the limitation of existing protections and highlights the general attitude toward student-on-teacher harassment:

Although “Title IX [which prohibits exclusion on the basis of sex] is one of the most sweeping sex discrimination laws ever passed,” case law shows its protections are only effective for students, not teachers. Students who, by default, are not employees of the school 78 that they attend, and who are sexually harassed by a teacher, have no recourse under Title VII [which prohibits discrimination by employers on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and bans sexual harassment]. Students must proceed under Title IX for relief because Title VII only applies to employer-employee relations. Conversely, for teachers who fall victim to sexual harassment by students, Title IX is an ineffective method for providing adequate relief. As Davis [Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education] established, Title IX provides a private cause of action against the school authority for damages in cases of student-on-student harassment. A victimized teacher’s better option is Title VII, which should, and to a limited extent does, permit causes of action against public school districts.

[ … ] “Despite the authority of teachers in the teacher-student relationship, teachers are subjected to objectionable sexual behaviors by students.” Over the past twenty years, investigators have discovered a variety of instances in which male students have sexually harassed female teachers. Studies show that in most cases of student-on-teacher sexual harassment, the victim is a female teacher. Although some sexually suggestive behaviors of students may be written off as “boys … ‘just being boys,'” many of these behaviors directed towards teachers have included the grabbing of teachers and “unwanted sexual comments and obscene remarks.” Until recently, “analysts have questioned whether this behavior constitutes true sexual harassment because of the inherent power differences between teachers and students.” The behaviors in question have also been termed ‘sexual hassling’ by these analysts, instead of sexual harassment, indicating behaviors that might otherwise be offensive but may not rise to the level of harassment.

The apparent disparity between the protective treatment received by students and the cold-shoulder treatment expected by teachers as victims of sexual harassment might have been justified by Congress and federal benches of generations past. However, as protections for students have grown, so must the protections safeguarding their educators. Such treatment of teachers is unjust: teachers cannot justifiably be left to fend for themselves.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 7 percent of teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student during the 2007-2008 school year. Four percent were actually attacked in incidents labeled “nonfatal victimization,” an umbrella term that includes serious violent crimes, including rape and assault, that don’t result in death. No statistics on sexual harassment reported by teachers were provided.

Regarding the suggestion to teach naked, GracieABD decided to take a stand. Before giving an exam to her class a couple of weeks after the evaluation forms had been submitted, she addressed the students: “I want to take the first couple minutes to call out the person who used the anonymity of the mid-semester evaluations as an opportunity to sexually harass me. […] Now, I’m going to give you the benefit of doubt and assume this was not a malicious comment. Now here’s where the teachable moment comes in: these types of comments, as well as things like catcalls, are not taken as compliments. They constitute sexual harassment, which is a form of bullying, and like any bully, you are a coward. An adult would own up to it and face the consequences. For those of you who may have heard about it afterward and snickered, high-fived, or didn’t in any way condemn it publicly, you are complicit in condoning such cowardly behavior. Now, here’s a good rule of thumb if you are unsure whether you are harassing or bullying someone—ask yourself: would you do or say this to your mother, sister, or eventually your daughters? If the answer is no, then, it is inappropriate to do or say to a person you do not know very well.”

She was later approached by one of her students who covers the gender beat for the school newspaper and who wanted to interview her about the incident. It’s telling that one of the first things that this teacher considered when determining whether to go public was how angry it would make the administration if she did so.

“Many of us don’t want to be seen as trouble-makers, especially those seeking tenure,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way, but it is. This was confirmed by the countless responses I received after the article ran from both faculty and staff, who confided in me that things like this have happened to them. Many wished they had the courage to do what I had, which made me feel a lot better and stronger about my decision to speak out. It also makes me sad that as professionals we still have to deal with gender discrimination and that a culture of victim blaming still controls decisions to come forward and talk about these issues openly.”

Header image by Frontierofficial.