Sexual harassment is a very real problem in our workplace and in our schools.
I know that my 20-year career as an employment law attorney representing victims of sexual harassment was born in high school where a popular athlete repeatedly propositioned me in an insulting sexual manner and touched me inappropriately when I wasn’t paying attention.
He was violent – purposely running into me in the hall and slamming me into the wall. He was large, I was and am very small. My locker was below his, and it happened day after day. I had no idea what to do – I was too embarrassed to do anything for weeks until I just couldn’t take it any more.
I started by telling my father
My Dad was determined to raise a strong daughter who never accepted unwanted harassment and had the courage to handle it herself.
On his advice, I told that athlete to leave me alone or I would go straight to the principal. The harasser told me, “Okay, babe, do what you want to — the principal is my uncle.”
I was afraid – I had NO IDEA whether or not the principal was his uncle, or whether it would make a difference that he was one of our better football players.
I did as my father told me I must – I went to the principal anyway. I was not the kind of student who had EVER talked to the principal about ANYTHING. I told him in the hallway with students passing around us in the chaos of class changing. I told him personal, embarrassing things that had happened to me.
No one has to take harassment
I was luckier than so many of the girls and women I have helped over the years. Before I even got to my next class, I heard that boy get called to the office over the intercom. He NEVER bothered me again. My Dad taught me that day that I don’t have to take harassment and I have the power to change things myself.
I used my voice. Now I am a voice for others when the principals and employers won’t pay attention.
Most of the sexual harassment lawsuits I’ve handled were filed under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That law prohibits sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace. I have prepared women to be strong through excruciatingly personal questions during depositions, and to explain, in detail, personal and embarrassing sexual intimidation and harassment to a jury of 12 people they have never met.
Title IX Combats Gender Based Violence and Harassment
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, most-known for requiring schools to allow women to participate in sports programs, requires schools, colleges and universities receiving federal funds to combat gender-based violence and harassment, and to respond to survivors’ needs in order to ensure that all students have equal access to education.
A school is only liable for damages if it acted with “deliberate indifference” to known sexual harassment. This is a tough standard and higher than the one employees face for co-worker harassment. But my career as a lawyer has taught me that human beings can do terrible things to each other.
Hill vs Madison County School Board
Our firm represents a girl who was raped in a local, public middle school in the boys bathroom when she was 14 years old. Almost as appalling as the rape itself was how the principals’ and assistant teacher’s actions and inactions effectively caused her rape.
When she reported to the assistant teacher that this boy had been bothering her to meet him in the boys bathroom for sex, the teacher told her that, according to the principal and the school’s sexual harassment policy, nothing could be done about the harassment unless the harasser was “caught in the act.”
So the teacher suggested the girl meet the boy and agree to go to the bathroom with him.
The teacher then told an assistant principal about the plan (the assistant principal denies the report), who did nothing.
The girl met the boy, and her rescuers did not arrive in time to save her from being raped.
As litigation proceeded, we learned that the principal did indeed refuse to punish a harasser unless he was “caught in the act,” or the event was witnessed, there was physical evidence, or the harasser admitted to the conduct.
A boy could harass one girl or 5 girls repeatedly without repercussion, unless some third party witnessed the harassment. This particular rapist had a long history of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct and violence, yet was allowed to roam the school halls unsupervised on the day this girl was raped.
Our children should be safe from known predators in our schools. This girl was not only victimized by her rapist, but also by the adults she should have been able to trust.
Even though the rape happened in 2010, the case is ongoing. The lower court found in favor of the school under Title IX, and the case is currently on appeal before the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
National Women’s Law Center
Attorneys with the National Women’s Law Center, a national women’s rights organization, are representing the girl with our law firm. “This tragic situation should never have happened,” said Fatima Goss Graves, NWLC Vice President for Education and Employment.
“The school’s policy that perpetrators of sexual harassment be ‘caught in the act’ allowed the school to turn a blind eye to sexual harassment. This lack of accountability sends a troubling message to would-be perpetrators: As long as you’re not caught, you’ll escape all consequences.”
United States Department of Justice
The United States Department of Justice agrees. The DOJ filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the 14-year-old victim, arguing articulately that a jury could “easily” conclude that the school violated Title IX.
Universities also have a responsibility under Title IX to protect female students from harassment.
My harasser wasn’t on the level of Jameis Winston – the Heisman-winning college player accused of rape who avoided prosecution – but what if he was? My harasser was only an unknown high school athlete, but would my complaints have been handled the same way if he was a star player on the football team?
Rape on college campuses has been described as both “rampant” and “highly underreported.” Under Title IX, schools have a responsibility to investigate and take measures to stop sexual assault and harassment. As a result of a recent White House task force on campus rape, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently began disclosing all colleges under review for their handling of sexual assault cases.
When the Department of Education published the full list for the first time on May 1, 2014, there were 55 schools facing federal scrutiny. The list has been growing, and updated information can be obtained by emailing OCR at OCR@fed.gov.
We are a civilized society, and we cannot tolerate sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault in our schools.
Use Your Voice
For women who are victimized at schools by rapists and harassers, you have advocates and you have a voice. No matter how embarrassing and intimidating it feels, using your voice can make a difference for you and future victims.
Know your rights and use your voice.