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Running head: SEXUAL HARASSMENT

Sexual Harassment: Zero Tolerance Policies May Do More Harm than Good
MSG James V. Southern
Southern New Hampshire University
September 21, 2014

Author Note
This paper was prepared for EDU-610, Section 01024, taught by Mr. Ron Barnes

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.Abstract

This paper examines the current climate of sexual harassment in schools, the possible cause of
the apparent zero tolerance policy that many schools have adopted, and the negative effects that
the punishment has on the accused. Several recent cases highlight the potentially wrongful
punishment of students for seemingly innocent non-sexually motivated acts. The Title IX
definition of sexual harassment is provided along with guidelines for schools to use when
determining if an actual case of sexual assault exists. Court rulings in the wake of Title IX
demonstrate possible reasons for schools reactions to reports of sexual harassment. And finally,
the impact to children who are wrongfully accused and punished for sexual harassment is
mentioned along with a recommendation to schools for further exploration.

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Sexual Harassment in Schools: Zero Tolerance Policies May Do More Harm than Good
A 12 year old Virginia Beach student received a three day suspension for telling his
teacher that she looked nice today (Fox, 2014). For hugging his teacher, a 17 year old Georgia
student was suspended for an entire year and could not graduate with his classmates (Murphy,
2013). In Colorado, a 6 year old boy was suspended for kissing a girl on the hand (Chasmar,
2013). I know first-hand how these parents feel, and more importantly, how these young children
feel about being accused of a sex crime. My own son was suspended from a Georgia school for
three days and banned from riding the school bus indefinitely for touching a female classmates
leg. I can tell you that the immediate psychological effects concerning the fragile principles of
right, wrong, and sexual identity, combined with the sexual stigma that will inevitably define all
future peer relationships, does irreparable, long-term damage to a childs self-esteem.
I understand very well that sexual harassment is a real issue in our society. I also agree
that it is a problem that must be addressed in the early stages of development in order to prevent
the normalization of bad gender-based social behavior. However, the zero-tolerance policy
adopted my many schools does not properly address the real issue of teaching our young people
about better social etiquette. By simply punishing a child for an action perceived by an adult as
sexual harassment, the school not only isolates the child from his or her learning environment, it
reinforces a damaging psychological cycle of gender inequality and mistrust. Instead, schools
should educate children on the implications of their actions, whether innocent or otherwise, in
order to promote an environment that is helpful, affirmative, and aimed at shaping positive social
behaviors.

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What is Sexual Harassment?

The Department of Educations Office for Civil Rights (1999) defines sexual harassment
as, unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Sexual harassment can include unwelcome sexual
advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual
nature (p. 2). The common thread in this definition is sexual in nature. What or who is
responsible for determining the criteria by which sexual is attached to an act committed by a
student? My son, like many other children punished for sexual harassment, had neither heard the
word nor seen the act of sex at their young age. To say that these children are capable of
associating the act of touching, hugging, and even kissing another person with intentions that are
sexual in nature is absurd.
In an attempt to guide school administrators in determining what constitutes sexual
harassment, the Department of Education (1999) provides several examples of legitimate nonsexual conduct and/or touching that should not be considered sexual harassment. These include a
teacher hugging a child who has done well or has been injured or one student making contact
with another student during a sporting event. (p. 3). Williams & Brake (1997) explain that Title
IX goes so far as to say that even some behaviors categorized as objectionable, such as
unwarranted touching, kissing on the cheek, or unsolicited hugging, should not be considered
sexual harassment. Although the guidelines are very vague, the one thing that is very clear and
consistent is that schools should consider the age, intent, frequency, and other mitigating
circumstances of each individual case when determining if sexual harassment is a warranted
offence. Under no circumstance should schools deny due process to either party or render a
common punishment for perceived acts of sexual harassment without investigating the matter
with a common sense approach beforehand.

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Why Do Schools Favor a Zero Tolerance Policy?
In a 1993 study conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, 76 percent of girls and 56
percent of boys reported being sexually harassed at some time before the sixth grade (Smith,
1998). The problem is real. Title IX increased awareness of sexual harassment in schools;
however, the flood of litigation that followed Title IX has negatively shaped the ways in which
schools react to reported cases. Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools ruled that private
individuals could sue public schools under certain circumstances of sexual harassment (Wu,
1998). Doe v. Petaluma City School District further stipulated that students who are sexually
harassed by another student can sue the school (Wu, 1998). And finally, Gebser v. Lago Vista
Independent School District set the conditions under which a school can be sued by a student
(Wu, 1998). According to Wu (1998), the Court held that school districts are liable
for money damages under Title IX only when a school official with authority to take corrective
measures has actual knowledge of the harassment, and has acted with deliberate indifference (p.
2). Additionally, schools are required by Title IX to have a sexual harassment prevention policy
in place. What does this mean to schools? In my opinion, the fear of losing federal funding and
fear of being sued for lack of action against reports of sexual assault has created a situation
among schools where the first reaction is to punish the accused. Due process and lengthy
investigations only prolong the schools potential exposure to public opinion and possible
negative actions by the Department of Education under Title IX. Quick suspensions appear to
remove the problem and may the path of least resistance.

The Impact on Children

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For children who are wrongfully accused of sexual harassment, the impact is as
significant if not more significant than those who are actual victims. The Department of
Education (1999) explains that:
Sexual harassment of a student can deny or limit, on the basis of sex, the students ability
to participate in or to receive benefits, services, or opportunities in the schools program.
Sexual harassment of students is, therefore, a form of sex discrimination prohibited by
Title IX under the circumstances described in this guidance (p. 5).
Hasty punishment rendered to those accused of sexual harassment denies them of the same rights
guaranteed by Title IX. If fact, the psychological damage can be permanent. Just a quick scan of
recent cases will demonstrate the extent of damage done to these children. Many indicate that
after being accused and punished for what they considered innocent acts, returning to school is
extremely difficult. They feel that they are dirty, and are isolated from their friends. In many
cased they are moved to different classrooms or to nearby schools to protect the accuser. This, in
my opinion, violates the same principle that Title IX is attempting to protect.
Conclusion
Sexual harassment is a growing problem in schools. And although the Department of
Education, through Title IX, had made several attempts to provide realistic guidelines for schools
to follow, the situation seems to be growing worse. Title IX rules have influenced many schools
to adopt a zero tolerance approach to complaints of sexual harassment. For this reason, a
growing number of innocent children are being wrongfully punished and permanently damaged.
It is my strong opinion that schools should reassess their policies on sexual harassment, develop
awareness programs for educating children on the effects of their actions and possible

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repercussions, and have a dedicated person, knowledgeable on Title IX rules and sexual
harassment policies, who can apply a common sense approach when investigating claims.

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References

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