Education Week - November 29, 2017 - 12
Is Harassment Less Likely in K-12?
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 1
I would strike back physically."
As a cascade of sexual harassment and assault allegations have
come out publicly in recent weeks
against high-profile men in politics,
entertainment, and media, women
in fields like customer service, retail,
and education have raised a flag to
say that their industries are not immune from such problems, though
the people who've been accused are
far less well known.
As women everywhere are reflecting on their own experiences with
sexual harassment and assault,
school administrators should be
mindful of whether they are creating climates where employees feel
safe and comfortable reporting
problems, lawyers who specialize in
sexual harassment cases said.
Hurst shared her story on Twitter after thousands of women responded to allegations against film
producer Harvey Weinstein by sharing messages on social media with
the hashtag #metoo, a phrase first
used by women's advocate Tarana
Burke to demonstrate how many
women have faced sexual abuse and
"There was such an outpouring
of stories, and I think that a lot of
what I was hearing from women
was so similar to what I've experienced myself," Hurst said.
Some common themes in women's
stories from other industries can
also play out in schools.
Warnings of problematic behavior are sometimes shared through
"whisper networks," and young
women employees who are adjusting to workplace norms may be hesitant to identify and report harassment in their first years on the job,
Attorneys and researchers who
study sexual harassment say the
misconduct is likely less common
among adults who work in K-12
education than in some fields-such
as the restaurant industry-where
employees work long, physically exhausting jobs in close quarters.
Teachers often work apart from
other adults for much of the day,
and public schools employ more
women than other fields. The average U.S. teacher is a 42-year-old
white woman and more than half of
school principals are women, federal
There's little comparative data on
rates of sexual harassment across
industries, largely because incidents don't always result in formal
complaints, and complaints may be
made to various agencies at local,
state, and federal levels.
But a sampling of recent headlines shows that schools around the
country have dealt with sexual harassment complaints, often involving allegations against district-level
administrators and principals.
Four teachers brought federal civil
rights claims against an elementary
school principal and the school district in Albany, N.Y., in 2014, claiming
12 | EDUCATION WEEK | November 29, 2017 | www.edweek.org
the school system did nothing to stop
the principal's frequent harassment.
The district later settled the case
without claiming any wrongdoing.
In addition to a financial settlement, the Iron County, Utah district committed to holding annual
sexual-harassment training in an
agreement earlier this year after
eight female employees sued, claiming a male employee who supervised
them had made inappropriate comments and advances, the Salt Lake
City Tribune reported.
Administrators in the school
where the women worked brushed
off the complaints and suggested
they were "asking for it" by the clothing they wore, the federal complaint
said, according to the newspaper.
An assistant principal at a
Palo Alto, Calif., high school had
amassed 25 sexual-harassment allegations about the principal before
she reported the complaints to the
district, the Palo Alto Daily Post
reported last March.
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.
The U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights uncovered
the backlog of allegations as part of
a larger investigation into student
complaints at two high schools in
Palo Alto Unified, the paper reported.
In an agreement with the federal
agency, the district committed to intensive staff training on sexual-harassment prevention and response.
Neither the principal nor the assistant principal still works in the
There's far more research on sexual abuse of students by adults and
peers in schools-a major concern in
recent years-than there is about
sexual harassment between adult
A 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office found
that schools weren't doing enough
to track instances of sexual misconduct against students, which can
lead other districts to hire offending
teachers, unaware of their behavior.
The same "boundary crossing behavior" that leads adults in schools
to make inappropriate comments
and sexual advances toward their
peers is often present in schools
where teachers have sexually
abused students, said Carol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational
leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who researches
sexual misconduct by educators.
"That sexualized climate and
behavior does spread between students and adults," she said.
To promote a healthy environment, school administrators should
have clear policies on sexual misconduct, and they should train on those
policies regularly, Shakeshaft said.
In cases when a complaint is
made, administrators can send out
a general reminder of those policies
without violating the privacy of the
accused or the accuser, she said.
"You point [the policies] out so
that people don't have the sense
that there's not any kind of response
to the issue," Shakeshaft said.
Such policies may help encourage reluctant employees to report
problematic behavior, said Kathleen Conn, a former educator who
now works as an attorney and educational consultant.
Young, untenured teachers may
have a general sense of powerlessness at work as they navigate demands from administrators, parents, students, and their peers, she
"It's kind of a set up for trying to
fit in and not make waves" that may
lead teachers to avoid reporting harassment, especially in situations
that fall into a gray area in their
minds, Conn said.
Other types of district policies
can protect employees from retaliation after they complain about
sexual harassment, particularly
when those allegations involve supervisors, said Tim Russ, an official
with the Michigan Education Association, the statewide teachers'
The Kalamazoo, Mich., district
recently placed a high school principal on paid administrative leave
after a female employee filed a federal lawsuit claiming he'd created
a "hostile work environment."
When teachers make such complaints about supervisors who are
responsible for reviewing their employment, there should be an "automatic institutional control" that
shifts that employee to a different
supervisor to avoid possible retaliation, Russ said.
The district told the Kalamazoo
Gazette that it is updating its hiring
processes after the newspaper found
the principal had previously had his
educator license revoked in Florida
after he engaged in a "pattern of
sexual harassment of female teachers and staff at his school."
Under state law, Michigan schools
are required to call educators' previous employers to screen for misconduct complaints, but only in-state
schools are required to provide a
thorough response, Russ said.
The union hears a small number
of sexual-misconduct complaints
overall, he said.
And that may be in part because
more women have taken roles in
school and district leadership over
time, Russ said.
Hurst, the former Illinois teacher,
said bolder young teachers are also
changing the culture by calling out
She hopes the attention given to
the issue will lead to changes for
women in all industries.
"I think the collective strength
of our voices is at a peak moment,"
she said. "It's sort of this groundswell."
Librarian Holly Peele contributed
to this report.