The #metoo movement, the social media flashpoint regarding sexual harassment in employment, may be focused on Hollywood. However, the movement has inspired women and men from all occupations to come forward and share their stories. One such woman is, Eva Rieder, a high school teacher in California who recently spoke of several horrifying incidents where students subjected her to lewd comments, unwanted touching and slander.
When situations like this occur, the teacher may deal directly with the offending student by disciplining them through normal channels like office referrals and talking to parents. The process may be difficult for some teachers having to first relive, and then note in detail, what happened to them. It’s little different than going forward with reporting sexual assault or harassment to law enforcement.
A current higher education instructor, Shawnta S. Barnes, recalled her experience dealing with students’ sexual harassment while a high school teacher. She disciplined the students after her encounters and her supervisor supported her actions.
Ms. Rieder’s experience didn’t resolve with punishment for the students. She claims that the school and school district administration failed to act on her complaints that she experienced a dozen incidents of harassment within a four-year period. The school district faces severe liability if Ms. Rieder can show that they knew and did nothing. Ms. Rieder may have the right to sue for damages.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard cases on liability by school boards for “deliberate indifference” to harassment by teachers against students and students against other students in the 1990s. The Court held in each that school boards face liability under Title IX, the law dealing with sex discrimination in education, when a person in power knew about the harassment but failed to act.
It may be clear, common sense that a school board owes a special duty to the students, especially under Title IX, to provide them with the opportunity to get an education free of unnecessary – or unlawful – obstacles and safe from harm. Teachers may seek relief under another law.
Teachers are employees of the school district. An employer owes a duty to its employees to provide a work environment free from sexual harassment under Title VII, a section of the Civil Rights Act. If the school district knows about the harassment and fails to act, then the school district could be liable for civil damages. A teacher will have the right to sue the school district if the teacher has reported the situation to someone in a position to take action. However, that teacher will have to show the school district knew and still failed to act.
What Should Teachers Do When They’re Sexually Harassed by Students?
If a teacher is suffering sexual harassment from students, the teacher needs to take action themselves first. If the teacher has not made every effort to follow the institutional procedures to address the harassment claim with the appropriate officials, they may not have a claim against the school district even if the school does nothing. The school cannot be held liable for a problem the administrators were not aware of.
Follow Prescribed Policies
Attempt to discipline the student as you would in any severe misconduct incident. Take notes and keep a copy of any paperwork or online form that is a necessary part of the discipline process.
Notify the Student’s Parents
This may be an extremely difficult part of the process. However, teachers may quell any pushback from the parents who are likely to be in disbelief if one speaks with them as soon as possible.
Discuss the Matter with Peers
Telling another teacher soon after the incident may be important should the school administration fail to act to address the situation. The fact that a teacher discussed the issue with someone contemporaneously will hold additional weight should the matter become a “he-said-she-said” issue. Make sure that you do not violate any student privacy policies when discussing it.
Continue to Follow the Process in the Face of Adversity
Some educators believe that because students are not in a position of power in the student-teacher relationship, they cannot commit illegal sexual harassment. Some may cling to outdated attitudes regarding conduct by young males; believing that boys will be boys or that the young men are simply exploring their sexuality and masculinity. These educators may resist your efforts to suspend or expel a student on grounds of such conduct. One need not argue these points, simply note the attempted discipline and the attempt to notify someone in power of the situation.
Ms. Rieder took her case to the public, holding her administrators accountable in the news media. The school reacted by hiring a lawyer to investigate her complaint. They also appointed a second official with responsibility for addressing Title IX complaints. They finally took action, but four years after the first complaint. Despite their action, Ms. Rieder may still have a cause for action because the school administration took so long to act.