Back to School Part IV

Title IX in the K-12 Arena 

It’s been written about in multiple books and articles. It shown up in discussions during the #MeToo movement. It has even appeared as the star of movies. Since 1972, Title IX has been making waves in our educational system, a law designed to treat everyone fairly, regardless of sex. 

The legal definition is a little drier: 

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.

And although it seems to be something that many of us are familiar with, here’s what so many people don’t know: it applies to ALL education levels, from elementary schools to college and university campuses. In fact, recent media reports have highlighted student on student sexual harassment and sexual violence in the K-12 educational facilities.  

In this first of a two-part series, we are going to focus on Title IX in the K-12 arena. Next month, we will take on Title IX and safety on college campuses. 

It seems that many people think of Title IX in relation to athletics because often that is where the need for gender inequality seems most prevalent. But the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has been guiding and enforcing the law with regard to sexual discrimination, which includes sexual harassment and sexual violence, for decades. Let’s go a little more in depth.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, or abusive environment that is so severe or pervasive it prevents a student from fully participating in an educational program or activity. Harassment includes unwanted verbal or written sexual statements, graffiti, name-calling, and sexual advances in person or via cellphones or the Internet. According to the Office of Civil Rights, there does not need to be intent to harm nor does the activity need to be directed at a specific person to be considered harassment. The more severe the conduct, the less need there is to show a repetitive series of incidents to prove a hostile environment, particularly if the harassment is physical. Male and female students may be subject to sexual harassment. In addition, harassment based on gender stereotypes is sexual harassment. 

What is Sexual Violence?

The Office of Civil Rights defines sexual violence as “physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent due to the victim’s use of drugs or alcohol. An individual may also be unable to consent due to an intellectual or other disability. A number of different acts fall into the category of sexual violence, including rape, sexual assault, sexual battery, and sexual coercion. All such acts are forms of sexual harassment covered under Title IX.” 

In April 2015, the Department of Education and the Department of Justice jointly sent out a ‘Dear Colleague’ Letter which laid out the expectations of the K-12 schools in the US who receive federal funding. In spite of the fact that many schools know there is increased scrutiny, many K-12 schools remain out of compliance with the Title IX requirements.  

What are the requirements of the school districts?

If a school district knows or reasonably should have known about sexual harassment or sexual violence that creates a hostile environment, it must take immediate action to end the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and remedy the effects on the student —regardless of whether a student complains. Failure to act or demonstrating “deliberate indifference” to harassment—a response that is “clearly unreasonable in light of the known circumstances”— could result in civil liability for the school district under Title IX in addition to any OCR enforcement action. 

Individual students may also bring private lawsuits against the school district under Title IX for failure to prevent and remedy sexual harassment under the deliberate indifference standard. Title IX also prohibits retaliation against students or employees who report sexual harassment. The retaliation prohibition includes not only the school district but also any students or employees accused of harassment 

Where should the school districts begin? 

There is such a wealth of information about Title IX, that many school districts don’t know where to begin. There are four steps that they can take that will make a big impact when combating sexual harassment in schools and begin the compliance process. 
  • Hire a full time Title IX coordinator 
  • Develop and share a districtwide anti-discrimination policy and grievance procedure 
  • Conduct training with both employees and students 
  • Select a qualified investigator 
The best environment for students to learn is a safe and non-threatening environment. Preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence in our schools enhances the learning space for all of our students.   
*Information above sourced from EduRisk Solutions 

How prevalent is sexual harassment? 

Approximately 80% of students in U.S. secondary schools report they have experienced sexual harassment, but it also occurs frequently in elementary schools (American Association of University Women, 2001). This type of behavior has become so commonplace that many accept it as something everyone puts up with. Even if it is common, sexual harassment is unacceptable, causing personal pain and embarrassment and creating a negative learning environment. 

Some data:

  • 74% of harassment incidents involved a single perpetrator 
  • 87% of harassers were male 
  • Of the cases where the gender of the harassed was identified, 60% were female 
  • Places where the harassment occurred 
    • 22% on the school bus 
    • 20% in the bathroom 
    • 12% in the classroom 
    • 5% in the locker room 
    • 8% off campus 
    • 33% in multiple locations, such as library, playground, office, or stairwell 

*Data from a review of 150 claims from 2010-2015 made by United Educators 

What does sexual harassment look like? 
Sexual harassment can take many forms but include one or more of the following: 

  • Calling someone sexually explicit and derogatory names 
  • Forwarding sexually explicit text messages and inappropriate pictures via text or e-mail 
  • Engaging in public shaming or bullying, that is sexual in nature 
  • Grabbing someone’s clothing or brushing up against them in a purposefully sexual way 
  • Impersonating other people online and making sexual comments or offers on their behalf 
  • Making comments about someone’s sexual preference or sexual activity 
  • Making sexual gestures to someone 
  • Making sexual jokes or comments about someone 
  • Participating in catcalling or harassment of someone 
  • Posting sexual comments, pictures, or videos on social media sites like Instagram, Facebook, or Snapchat  
  • Sending sexually explicit text messages and pictures via text message, also known as sexting, and/or pressuring someone to participate in sexting to show commitment or love 
  • Sharing inappropriate sexual videos or pictures 
  • Spreading sexual rumors or gossip in person, by text, or online 
  • Touching, grabbing, or pinching someone in a deliberately sexual way 
  • Writing sexual comments about someone in blogs, on bathroom stalls, or in other public places 

What can you do? 

1) Listen to your child. Talking about sex at all can be stressful. But finding out that your child is either a victim of, or a perpetrator of, sexual harassment will usually stop a conversation in its tracks.  

In spite of the emotional consequence to themselves, many students who have been sexually harassed in school take a passive approach to avoid future episodes. They avoid their aggressors, minimize the unacceptable behaviors of the aggressor, and frequently deny anything happened at all. Students frequently don’t come forward for reasons that include shame, wanting to maintain status, and fear of reprisal from the aggressor. 

Often there is a freeze response to the harassment, keeping the student from fleeing the aggressor. This immobility is a natural, biological response to extreme stress. It happens automatically when the body perceives little chance of escaping or winning a fight (Schmidt, et al. 2008)*. 

* Schmidt, N. B., Richey, J. A., Zvolensky, M. J., & Maner, J. K. (2008). Exploring Human Freeze Responses to a Threat Stressor. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 39(3), 292–304. 

2) Get educated.  Become aware of how harassment occurs with school age children. Here is an article with some great insight from a teacher who has a Master’s degree in gifted education. She lays out some things that can be done with children as young as elementary school. https://www.exquisite-minds.com/gifted-education/sexual-harassment-at-school/ 

3) Parent with intent to raise emotionally healthy children.

In the next e-newsletter, we’ll be talking about Title IX on college campuses, campus safety and DFSA awareness.