Sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue filling our airwaves these days with one allegation after another made against high-profile individuals. While these allegations make headline news due to the recognition of the alleged perpetrators, the issue of harassment crosses all industry sectors, private and public, including at educational institutions. It’s important, therefore, for schools and their districts to take this time to revisit their anti-harassment policies to ensure implementation and adherence.
The majority of school districts already have policies in place addressing harassment and discrimination, including procedures on how to report incidents, both against employees and students. (Title IX prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment in all educational institutions that receive federal funds.) The key is to make sure that these policies are being adhered to in order to protect both school employees and students against harassment.
For example, anti-harassment procedures should ensure that complaints are responded to in a timely fashion, qualified personnel conduct impartial and timely investigations, documentation and tracking for reasonable progress is followed, and appropriate options for remedial actions and resolutions are instituted. Unfortunately, however, without ongoing evaluation, oversight, and policy audits, procedures aren’t followed and major gaps exist in effectively dealing with incidents. Take for instance what occurred last year at a Palo Alto, California high school. The assistant principal at the school had amassed 25 sexual-harassment allegations about the principal before she reported the complaints to the district. The reports, made by students and teachers who witnessed or were subject to the principal’s behavior, ranged from “sexual comments being made to unwelcome hugs and touching,” a federal investigation found. In another incident in Albany, New York, four teachers brought federal civil rights claims against an elementary school principal and the school district back in 2014, claiming the school system did nothing to stop the principal’s frequent harassment. The district later settled the case without claiming any wrongdoing.
Training of staff on the school’s anti-harassment policies, of course, is critical, with the appropriate personnel in place responsible for receiving complaints. Additionally, all employees – teachers, principals, supervisors, etc. – should be made aware of the seriousness of violations of the discrimination and harassment prevention policy and must be cautioned against using peer pressure to discourage harassment victims from complaining.
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