Sexual Harassment Defined

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Students and families across the country struggle with the devastating impact of sexual harassment and sexual assault. Yet in many cases, victims haven’t acknowledge that they’ve actually been sexually harassed or assaulted.

That’s because victims have come to accept sexual harassment as normal and sexual assault as their fault. It’s gotten so bad that girls at this school think that feeling uncomfortable is normal.

Everyone must recognize the many forms of sexual harassment and violence so students are protected and afforded an equal education, as guaranteed by Title IX.  The US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has published an overview of sexual harassment titled Sexual Harassment: It’s not Academic. Here is some important information:

From The National Women’s Law Center:

How to Recognize and Combat Sexual Harassment: A Primer for Students Read online or Read Here

Students are dropping out of school at alarming rates. Many boys and girls report that they drop out because they do not feel safe at school. The National Women’s Law Center wants all students to know that they have a right to be protected from harassment, bullying and/or other forms of violence at school.

School district officials are legally responsible to guarantee an education for all students in a safe environment which is free from sexual harassment and sex discrimination. Title IX is a federal law that prohibits sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, in all educational institutions that receive federal funds. Under Title IX, a school or school district may also be held financially liable for harms arising from teacher-on-student or student-on-student harassment. This fact sheet is designed to help students identify, understand and address sexual harassment.

Q: What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment is unwanted or unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes unreasonably with a student’s ability to learn, study, work, achieve, or participate in school activities. Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination, and schools are legally responsible for preventing it. Schools must also prevent harassment based on your sex, even if it is not sexual in nature.

Sexual harassment need not occur on school property—it can happen off school grounds in any school-related program or activity. Students in a recent survey said they had been sexually harassed on transportation to and from school, on field trips (including away games at other schools), and in drivers’ education cars. Schools must protect you from harassment in each of these places.

Q: Who can be a perpetrator or target of sexual harassment?

A student can be harassed by teachers, other students, or anyone else with whom the student interacts while at school or while engaging in school-related activities. Males and females can engage in or be victims of sexual harassment. Girls can sexually harass girls, and boys can sexually harass boys.

Q: What types of behavior qualify as sexual harassment—how do you draw the line between flirting and sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment covers a range of behaviors, including but not limited to: touching, pinching, or grabbing body parts; sending sexual notes or pictures; writing sexual graffiti on bathroom walls; making suggestive or sexual gestures, looks, jokes, or verbal comments; spreading sexual rumors or making sexual propositions; pulling someone’s clothes off; pulling your own clothes off; sexual assault; and rape.

Unlike flirting or good-natured joking, which are mutual interactions between two people, sexual harassment is unwelcomed and unwanted behavior which may cause the target to feel threatened, afraid, humiliated, angry, or trapped.

Q: If a girl wears tight clothing or a short skirt, is she asking to be sexually harassed?

Sometimes people like to dress stylishly and attractively, but that does not mean that they want to attract everyone or that they are looking to be sexually harassed. Harassment is unwanted and can make a person feel trapped, confused, helpless, embarrassed or scared—certainly no one is asking for those feelings.

Blaming the victim makes being bullied seem like something we can control with our clothing or physical characteristics—but the reality is that women and girls are sexually harassed regardless of their appearance, age, race, or class.

Q: Who is responsible if a student is harassed at school?

Schools have a duty to prevent harassment, to have policies against it, to investigate complaints, and to take prompt action to stop harassment when it occurs. In some cases, a student may be able to go to court to get damages, if a school fails in these responsibilities.

Although an individual harasser cannot be sued under Title IX, if the harasser has engaged in a criminal act—like rape, attempted rape, or assault—then a district attorney may choose to prosecute the individual in criminal court.

Q: What should I do if I am being sexually harassed?

Sexual harassment which is ignored often escalates. If you feel safe doing so, let the harasser know that his or her attention is unwanted and alert other people—a friend, a counselor, or trusted adult—about the behavior. Doing so protects your rights and the rights of other students to be free from this unwanted behavior. Here are some basic things you should do if you believe you are being sexually harassed:

Tell the harasser that you want the unwelcome behavior to stop. If you feel comfortable doing so, tell the harasser that his or her behavior bothers you and that you want it to stop.

Talk to someone you trust. Whether it’s a friend, parent, counselor, or someone else whom you trust, find a person who believes you. Doing this will provide you with support and can be important evidence later.

Keep a detailed written record of the harassment. Record what happened, when, where, who else was present, and how you reacted. Save any notes, pictures, or other documents you receive from the harasser.

Report the harassment. Find your school’s anti-harassment policy and talk to the person who has been designated to deal with complaints of sexual harassment. If you feel uncomfortable talking to the designated person, go to a teacher or another adult at the school whom you like and trust. It’s okay to bring a friend or parent with you to that meeting.

File a complaint. You have the right to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, with your state’s Department of Education, or to bring a lawsuit under Title IX. You may want to talk to a lawyer about these options, particularly if you are thinking of filing a lawsuit.

Remember you are not alone. The most recent comprehensive study of sexual harassment in high schools found that 83% of females and 79% of males reported having been sexually harassed in ways that interfered with their lives, with 27% experiencing it often.

Know that you have a right to feel safe in school. If you have concerns about harassment, bullying, or other forms of violence, you can seek help. For more information, contact us at info@nwlc.org.”

Cyberbullying and Sexual Harassment. Read online or Read Here

Can cyberbullying also be sexual harassment? Much cyberbullying is sexual harassment.  Conduct does not have to be sexual in nature to constitute harassment.  It can also include demeaning a person because of that person’s gender or that person’s sexual activity.  For example, sexual harassment can include harassing a person because girls should not take shop classes, or be a math whiz, or play a particular sport.  Other examples include using cell phones or the internet to target students with sexual epithets like “slut” or “whore,” disseminating compromising photographs of a student, or spreading rumors about a student’s sexual activity or partners.  Conduct too often dismissed as just “boys being boys” or “mean girls,” when severe, can actually be prohibited harassment.

Must schools respond to cyberbullying?   Often, yes.  Sexual harassment—including sexual harassment in the form of cyberbullying—can make the school environment hostile for a student when it is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with the student’s education.  All schools covered by Title IX have an obligation to take prompt and effective action to end hostile environments caused by sexual harassment, prevent the recurrence of such harassment, and remedy its effects.  And in lawsuits, schools that have actual knowledge of harassment and are deliberately indifferent to it may be held liable for damages.

In addition, as a matter of educational policy schools should respond to cyberbullying, because students cannot learn and succeed if they do not feel safe at school.  A positive, safe, and respectful school environment is critical to student achievement, so it is in everyone’s best interest for schools to do all they can to detect, swiftly address, and ultimately deter cyberbullying and other forms of harassment.

What about cyberbullying that happens outside of school?   Some schools question whether they can get involved in cyberbullying that is done “off campus,” from home computers, cell phones, or elsewhere, because of concerns about students’ rights to free speech.  However, courts have held that schools may discipline students for off-campus cyberspeech consistent with the First Amendment if it was reasonably foreseeable that the speech would create a substantial disruption in the school environment.

In order to clarify schools’ obligations, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in October 2010 to make it clear that sex-based bullying and harassment that is severe or pervasive enough to interfere with a student’s education, although it may occur in electronic form, is still prohibited by Title IX.  OCR did not distinguish between on- and off-campus conduct.

In short, Title IX requires schools to respond to hostile environments in their education programs caused by sexual harassment, regardless of where—or in what form—the conduct occurs.  Though courts have not yet addressed the intersection of Title IX and the First Amendment, if sexual harassment in the form of off-campus cyberbullying creates a hostile environment for a student, it will likely also be reasonably foreseeable that the conduct would cause a substantial disruption in the school.  In such a case, a school would be required to intervene under Title IX and would be constitutionally able to address the harmful conduct without impermissibly violating its students’ rights to free speech.

Resources for Students, Parents, & Educators Read online or Read Here

From RAINN:

Sexual Harassment in the Schools Read online or Read Here

Sexual harassment is not limited to offices and work arenas. Increasingly, sexual harassment is being displayed in our nation’s schools.

It Can Take Milder Forms

  • Looks
  • Jokes
  • Graffiti on bathroom walls
  • Comments about body parts

Or More Severe Forms

  • Physical intrusion into personal space
  • Grabbing
  • Brushed up against in a sexual way

Common Reactions

  • Less confident
  • More self-conscious
  • Ashamed
  • Embarrassed
  • Consequently lower grades

Learn more about the laws in your state through RAINN’s state database.

See this essential resource defining the many Types of Sexual Assault from RAINN

From 1 is 2 Many (US Government):

Take Action Against Abuse – For Parents Read online or Read Here

Overview Evidence also shows that 1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted while in college. While male survivors of this violence comprise a smaller number, they are no less important. Do not wait until your child is already enrolled in college to ask the necessary questions. When you or your child visit prospective institutions, make sure to ask them about how their school handles sexual violence. Women who were raped or experienced attempted rape in adolescence are significantly more likely to be the victim of rape or attempted rape in college. Dating violence in adolescence is the primary predictor of college dating violence, with victims of adolescent dating violence over twice as likely to be victimized in college as those with no prior victimization. Almost 70% of female victims experience intimate partner violence for the first time before the age of 25.

Why Focus on Teens and Young Adults? Parents have a critical role to play in educating their teens and young adults about dating violence and sexual assault. A 2008 study found that 67% of students who were abused in a relationship talked to a friend, but only 13% also talked to a parent or trusted adult. Do not wait until you have reason to be concerned to talk with your child about dating violence and sexual assault. Finding a way to discuss these topics early on can make the difference between prevention and intervention and also set your child up to make healthy relationship choices throughout his or her lifetime.

Facts About Teen and Young Adult Dating Violence and Sexual Assault

  • Females ages 16-24 are more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group.
  • Almost 70% of female rape victims were first raped before the age of 25, and over 40% were first raped before age 18.
  • Young women age 16-24 are victims of rape at almost triple the rate of women age 25-34.
  • The number of teens physically hurt by a dating partner has not declined between 2001 and 2011. The same is true for the number of teen victims of sexual assault.

Consequences of Dating Violence

  • Teens who are victims are more likely to be depressed and do poorly in school.
  • They may engage in unhealthy behaviors, like using drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to have eating disorders.
  • Some teens even think about or attempt suicide.
  • One in three high school girls who have been abused by a boyfriend has become pregnant.
  • Teens who are victims in high school are at a higher risk for victimization during college.

Possible Indicators of Abuse

If you observe interactions between your teen/young adult and his or her partner that include controlling behavior, intimidation or verbal abuse, your son or daughter may be involved in an abusive relationship. Your teen/young adult may be the victim of dating violence if she or he: 

  • Shows signs of depression or loss of confidence
  • Has noticeable changes in eating or sleeping
  • Worries about making a dating partner angry or jealous
  • Has suspicious bruises or injuries
  • Makes excuses for her or his dating partner’s bad behavior
  • The dating partner follows your daughter or son, shows up uninvited
  • Is scared of her or his dating partner
  • Has a dating partner who exhibits obsessive jealousy
  • Has to constantly respond to text messages, phone calls or other communication from her or his dating partner
  • Starts to do poorly in school
  • Loses interest in activities or hobbies that were once enjoyable
  • Avoids family and friends
  • Begins using alcohol or drugs
  • Suddenly changes how she or he dresses in order to cover injuries

The Role of Technology in Abuse

The current generation uses technology as no other ever has. Though stalking and controlling behaviors have always been part of abuse, new technological tools give perpetrators many ways to harass and monitor victims. Constant texting, tracking via cell phone, hacking into social networking accounts and other tactics are common.

  • A quarter of stalking victims report being stalked through the use of technology – either by having email or networking accounts hacked into or being tracked electronically.
  • Texting has become the preferred channel of basic communication between teens and their friends. The frequency of texting has overtaken the frequency of every other common form of interaction with friends, including face to face.

Talking to Your Teen/ Young Adult

  • Find the right time and place for a discussion.
  • Build trust and listen to your teen/young adult.
  • Consider using “teachable moments” to start conversations.
  • Pay attention to the verbal and non-verbal information your teen/young adult is conveying.
  • Be honest about your own perspective and experiences.
  • Find ways to keep the conversation ongoing.
  • Be a role model for healthy relationships.

For more information see our Awareness Videos, our selected media reports, or search sexual assaults K-12 online. Many forms of sexual harassment and violence are described in the OCR investigation letter of the Richmond (CA) School District. You may contact any OCR office for additional investigation reports or questions about definitions of sexual harassment and assault.

Sexual harassment is also defined in videos made by schools. One example is Confronting Sexual Harassment Bullying. However, although this video says schools will address reported harassment, this does not always happen. If schools always addressed harassment properly, families nationwide would not need to file complaints with OCR/other agencies, or file lawsuits. For additional descriptions of daily sexual harassment and school assault, see this video by students at Berkeley High School.

Parents have contacted SSAIS describing the following types of sexual harassment and assault (the links are to sample cases in the media):


Is there a resource you’d like to see here? Contact us.

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