Tales of sexual harassment at universities and polytechnics abound. We all know how it goes, from the lecturer who propositions a student for sex in exchange for grades, the admission officer who wants sex in exchange for admission, the HOD who insists on sex before a student can graduate or go for NYSC, to the classmate or tutor who harasses his/her peer. Some lecturers have failed students repeatedly until they yielded to their sexual demands, while those who would not compromise have been harassed out of school through frustrations from writing the same course over and over, or spending more years than they should while their peers go ahead to graduate. In some incidents, the harassment escalates to rape with little attempt by university authorities to apprehend the perpetrators.
However, it doesn’t happen only in higher institutions. Pupils in secondary and primary schools also fall victim to sexual harassment. In the case of secondary and primary school pupils, Sexual harassment is a widespread problem that adversely affects their emotional and educational development. Its consequences can be very severe. Pupils who experience sexual harassment are likely to react by talking less in class, not wanting to go to school, and finding it hard to pay attention in school. Research has also demonstrated that targets of sexual harassment experience anxiety, distress, confusion, loss of self-esteem, and depression.
Employee behavior that might lead to sexual harassment charges at schools include:
- Tutoring a student in a secluded area or behind a closed door.
- Taking students home after school in private vehicles.
- Texting or interacting with students via social media.
- Making suggestive comments to students or acting in a flirtatious manner.
- Inviting students to their homes.
- Touching students inappropriately and when they do not want to be touched.
How can schools prevent and remedy sexual harassment?
- Ensure you have an effective sexual harassment policy. Develop and maintain an anti-discrimination policy and grievance procedures that address sex discrimination generally, including sexual harassment. Clear and well-publicized policies and procedures specifically addressing sexual harassment announce to students and employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated and inform them of how to report sexual harassment if it occurs.
- Involve the Entire School Community and Make the Policy User-Friendly. Whether creating a new sexual harassment policy or evaluating a pre-existing policy for effectiveness, solicit involvement from your entire school community to ensure that the policies are practical and easy to understand. One way to gather input from the community is by distributing a survey to students. Do not forget about the wider community when writing the policy—use plain language that will be accessible to teachers, students, school employees, and parents. If a significant number of students attending the school or their parents are non-English speakers, translate the policy into other languages.
- Ensure Confidentiality and Prohibit Retaliation. Your policy should ensure that complaints will be handled with as much confidentiality as possible and make clear that retaliation is strongly prohibited. Although it is impossible to guarantee complete confidentiality (the name of the person complaining will often need to be disclosed to the accused or to witnesses in the course of investigation), a policy that promises to investigate sexual harassment claims with as much confidentiality as possible will protect those who challenge harassment, as well as prevent potential defamation lawsuits by accused harassers and minimize negative Confidentiality will help to prevent retaliation against students or witness’s cooperating in an investigation.
- Clearly Explain How Students Who Have Been Harassed Can Challenge that Harassment. Your policy should lay out a formal complaint procedure informing the school community of the following: how, where, and with whom to file a complaint; what will happen during the investigative process and how final determinations will be made; the time frames that will generally apply in an investigation of harassment; the possible penalties for committing sexual harassment; and how to file an appeal.
- Make Sure the Policy is Well-Publicized and Effectively Implemented. Every student, parent, and school employee should receive a copy of the policy and complaint procedures or a brochure or pamphlet summarizing it, as well as regular reminders about it. Posters about the policy and sexual harassment should be placed in hallways, locker rooms, classrooms, administrators’ offices, student activity areas, or other public places. A description or summary of the policy, with names of persons to contact for more information, should be included in all major school publications such as handbooks, course catalogs, or orientation materials. It is equally important to ensure that the policy is effectively implemented. Violence manifests itself in many forms, one of which is sexual harassment and bullying. Failure to implement and enforce sexual harassment policies and procedures will jeopardize the emotional and educational well-being of your students.
- Take Corrective Action to Keep the Harassment from Happening Again. After completing the investigation, the school must take actions that are reasonably calculated to prevent the harassment from recurring. An effective remedial strategy must include disciplinary actions tailored to fit the severity of the conduct. It is also important to follow up with the student to make certain the harassment has stopped and that no retaliation has occurred; provide the student with counseling if there is need.
No matter how comprehensive the policy is on paper, it will be ineffectual unless it is enforced. When strong policies are in place to protect students from sexual harassment, the level of sexual assault in schools would drastically become low. Students should always tell someone who can help if they’re being harassed; don’t blame yourself, say “NO” clearly, write down the incident as it happened, consult the school grievance policy, and report the harassment to the appropriate channel.
Adapted from National Women’s Law Center. When Girls Don’t Graduate We All Fail.