Feminist Law Professors points to a new paper by Fatima Goss Graves of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy that makes the case for a new standard for policies that protect students against sexual harassment in schools--essentially, a return to standards established under the 1972 Title IX Act, which prohibits discrimination by schools that receive federal funds.
But first, a look at the scope of the problem. A 2005 report by the American Association of University Women called "Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus" found that 81 percent of secondary school students reported experiencing sexual harassment at school, and 89 percent of college students reported that sexual harassment occurred on their campus. Two-thirds of those said they had been sexually harassed. "That means," the report concludes, "that about six million college students encounter sexual harassment at college. Expressed another way, on a campus of 10,000 undergraduate students, about 6,000 students will be harassed. Another study in 2001 found that 83 percent of girls in 8th through 11th grade had been harassed--a dramatic increase from a similar study (also by the AAUW) in 1996, which found that 56 percent of girls in those grades had been harassed.
One possible reason sexual harassment is so omnipresent on school campuses is that courts have whittled away at Title IX to the point that plaintiffs rarely receive damages for harassment; in the main case Graves cites, the Supreme Court determined that for school to be liable for sexual harassment, "appropriate" school officials (not necessarily teachers or counselors) must have been informed directly about the harassment and ignored it. That ruling called on Congress to come up with a standard for sexual harassment claims at schools. (Another case raised the standard for student-on-student harassment to behavior "“so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school."
Facing such a daunting problem (and such hostility from the courts), many observers disturbed by school sex harassment have thrown up their hands, calling, essentially, for more awareness of the problem. That's a start, of course, but legal solutions go much further in terms of setting precedents and examples.
Graves proposes several levels of reform. The first is passing the Civil Rights Act of 2008, a just-introduced bill that would extend civil rights protections to students as well as employees--a direct response to the Supreme Court's demand that Congress take up the issue of sexual harassment in schools. (It would also require schools to adopt comprehensive antiharassment policies and take immediate action to stop harassment when it occurs.) The second level of reform Graves calls for is at the state level--encouraging students who are harassed to sue under state law, which is often stronger than the watered-down Title IX. Many states have laws that prohibit sexual harassment in schools as well as workplaces, and explicitly give students the right to sue.
The common ground here is that solutions to sexual harassment in schools that work are systemic, not ad hoc or case-by-case; telling schools simply that they really ought implement some sort of policy isn't going to work. What does work: Requiring schools to have sexual harassment policies (one idea I particularly like is letting students write the policy); requiring schools to teach kids about sexual harassment at all ages; and establishing real accountability for schools that let kids and employees get away with harassment (through the accreditation process, for example). Ultimately, the solutions to sexual harassment can't come just from parents or students themselves; they have to originate as legal and policy signals from the top of the command chain that sexual harassment simply will not be tolerated.