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A New Lesson in Schools: Sexual Harassment Is Unacceptable

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One more vulgarity, Elizabeth decided one day in April, 1992, and her right leg would crunch his crotch.

“Whore,” the teen-age boy yelled. Then he grabbed Elizabeth’s behind.

Thwack.

He grimaced and groaned. And he never harassed her again.

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From other boys, though, Elizabeth said she continued to endure leering and jeering, grabbing and jabbing, taunting and haunting. In her thoughts and dreams, their words reverberated: whore, bitch, slut, tramp.

“I thought, ‘This is what it’s like to be female.’ I didn’t like it,” said Elizabeth, 15, claiming she suffered peer sexual harassment at Los Altos Intermediate School in Camarillo.

In tears, Elizabeth told her mother, Diana, who talked to administrators. They investigated and ultimately enacted new anti-harassment policies, but Elizabeth and Diana, still not satisfied, filed a complaint in December, 1992, with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The agency investigated their claim under Title IX, the law designed to guarantee students an education free of discrimination, but concluded that the district had taken “appropriate action” to end the harassment.

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Still, “I didn’t feel too safe,” Elizabeth said. Her mother said the harassment eventually stopped, but she has encouraged her daughter, who soon will begin 10th grade at Adolfo Camarillo High School, to use force should it resume, “until, finally, no one bothers her anymore.”

“I have to look out for myself,” Elizabeth said.

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As a result of new laws and heightened public awareness, parents have flooded state and federal agencies with complaints or inquiries about peer sexual harassment, and some have filed lawsuits; school officials hoping to forestall lawsuits are scrambling to develop policies and curriculum, and some students are publicly decrying behavior once dismissed as schoolyard teasing.

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“Peer sexual harassment” is defined by attorney Jeanette Lim, director of policy and programs for the federal Office for Civil Rights, as: “Behavior so severe, pervasive and persistent that it creates a hostile environment for the student. It is usually of a sexual nature.”

Five years ago, experts say, relatively few Americans realized that students were capable of such behavior, or that it even constituted harassment.

But after the 1991 Hill-Thomas hearings, cases began to surface in which students were paid damages from districts that had failed to stop peer harassment. A 1993 study conducted by the American Assn. of University Women found that four out of five teen-agers had suffered some form of sexual harassment in school.

That same year, California joined a handful of other states in enacting laws targeting peer sexual harassment--one requiring public schools to develop and distribute student policies; the other permitting administrators to expel harassers in grades 4 through 12.

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The Department of Education’s civil rights office has tracked what spokesman Rodger Murphey dubbed “a growth industry”: 143 student complaints of sexual harassment in elementary and secondary schools during the 1992-93 academic year compared with only 15 in 1987-88. Murphey said that while some of these cases involve teachers, “a good number” are peer cases, although specific breakdowns are not tabulated.

The new laws have kept officials hopping at the state Department of Education. From July, 1993, through June of this year, the department had received 425 phoned, written, faxed or personal inquiries, about one-third of which have dealt with peer sexual harassment, said Barny Schur, gender-equity consultant.

“The issue is really taking off,” Schur said. “Many used to excuse this behavior as boys will be boys. It is now being perceived as unacceptable sexual harassment.”

Schur added that it is difficult to determine a total number of state cases because most are resolved at the school level. Many Southern California districts say they haven’t begun tracking the number of reported incidents; they’ve been too busy tuning and touting their new sexual harassment policies.

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The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, hopes to start documenting the number of peer sexual harassment cases next year, said Deanne Neiman, director of affirmative action. It became one of the first districts in the state to acknowledge the problem when, in May, 1992, it distributed anti-sexual harassment booklets in high schools. Now the 650,000-student district wants to introduce curriculum in the elementary schools.

Schur lauds the LAUSD, saying that in the past two years, he has not received a single inquiry about peer sexual harassment out of the nation’s second-largest school district. He compared that to the four cases he has heard about from Modesto-area school districts (with only about 30,000 students).

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In May, 1993, Jessica Hasenbank, 10, cowered in fear as she watched six boys slam two of her girlfriends onto the ground, stuff grass in their mouths to prevent screams, spew lewd remarks and try to strip them.

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She knew how it felt, her father alleged. Jessica spent much of her time at Fairview Elementary School dodging--and often enduring--boys who consistently spit on girls, touched their genitals, screamed obscenities, locked them in chokeholds, kissed them, pinched their behinds and pinned them to the ground.

So Jim Hasenbank and his wife, Leighann, filed an Office for Civil Rights complaint against the Modesto City School District. While many in the community dismissed the case by saying that “boys will be boys,” the agency ruled in December that the district failed to take “timely and appropriate action” to stop the behavior.

“The district did the best it could,” said spokeswoman Carol Quinlan, adding that it has since developed a sexual harassment policy. “It’s a total learning situation for everyone.”

The incident illustrates the confusion adults and children struggle with when determining if a behavior is harassment or harmless--albeit annoying--teasing.

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A 1992 study by Wellesley College’s Center for Research on Women and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund found that almost 40% of the 4,200 girls surveyed indicated that they encountered daily sexual harassment at school.

Much of that was mild, however, said Nan D. Stein, a Wellesley researcher who led the study. For instance, Stein explained, girls endured pats and pinches instead of being pinned against a wall and stripped naked. Often girls--and girls suffer more than boys--dismiss the non-blatant acts because they’re either nervous about making a big deal or unsure if it’s sexual harassment.

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Five years ago, Lim, the civil rights official, only heard about teen boys sexually harassing teen girls. But no more.

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She recalled the 1992 case in which Cheltzie Hentz, then 7, became the first student in the nation to formally accuse other elementary students of sexual harassment. In April, 1993, the civil rights panel ruled against the Eden Prairie School District in suburban Minneapolis, which led to sexual-harassment curriculum being taught in Minnesota elementary schools.

“Quite frankly, (the agency) was really, really surprised that this could happen in elementary schools,” Lim said.

Carol Nazar acknowledges the difficulty in determining when the line has been crossed. “I see girls put down a lot,” said Nazar, who teaches at Wilson High School in Long Beach. Two years ago, she taught at Lakewood High, home of the sex-for-points Spur Posse. “I see a lot of sex play in the hallways. But the girls and boys do it to each other. Back and forth, back and forth.”

An elementary-school teacher in Torrance thinks peer sexual harassment is only an issue among a few high school delinquents. “Boys always tease cute girls and call them names,” she said, asking not to be identified. “That’s not sexual harassment. It’s called growing up. (Students) are too young to (sexually harass).”

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Louise Brawdy scoffs at the term “too young.” She heard it during the four years she publicly denounced the Petaluma City School District for failing to stop students from harassing her daughter, Tawnya. (In 1992, Tawnya, now 21, received $20,000 from the district in an out-of-court settlement).

Brawdy said parents and students have a responsibility to stop peer sexual harassment, and in 1992 she co-founded Parents for Title IX, an education-advocacy group that now has more than 500 members. In California, she says, education is especially crucial because “everyone seems confused about harassment (despite) the new laws.”

A lack of mandatory sexual harassment education is the main flaw of the laws, said State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), who wrote the suspension-expulsion legislation. He wanted the law to require all school staff and students to receive sexual harassment sensitivity training, but said he took “what I could get.” State budget problems make additional sexual harassment laws unlikely in the near future.

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In the fall of 1990, a rumor spread through Petaluma’s Kenilworth Junior High School about a 7th-grade girl who had “sex with a hot dog.” Graffiti on the bathroom walls labeled her “hot dog bitch.” Girls threatened to beat her. One even slapped her. Two students wondered out loud if she preferred them “frozen or cooked.”

In a federal lawsuit that details these incidents, the girl claims that officials at the school--part of the same district that paid the settlement to Tawnya Brawdy--failed to stop the harassment for 2 1/2 years.

The teen-ager’s attorneys say she suffered mental health problems, such as fear, depression, anxieties and an inability to function in social situations. In Jane Doe vs. Petaluma City School District, the girl, now 16, is seeking $1 million.

The Doe case, scheduled to go to trial in January, will help clarify the liability of schools nationwide, agreed Petaluma Supt. Chuck Cadman and one of Doe’s attorneys, Maria Blanco, of Equal Rights Advocates in San Francisco, a nonprofit law firm specializing in gender discrimination.

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Cadman is looking to Doe for guidance. “My memories of junior high was that there were lots of behaviors some might label as ‘boys will be boys,’ ” he said. “In the last few years, we’ve learned that kind of behavior is not OK. So schools are adjusting.”

Cadman said that his district’s sexual harassment policies went “above and beyond” what the law required and suggests that such efforts should not be punished with a costly lawsuit. “I’m hoping the courts will clear up what (behavior) is and is not OK.”

Blanco wants the Doe case to slap districts with reality. “The school didn’t protect Jane Doe, and (a district) must always protect its students,” she said. “Or else they should pay.”

Whatever the outcome, educators and legal experts expect more peer sexual harassment lawsuits.

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Schur, of the state Department of Education, said parents incorrectly assume schools have money for lawsuits. He encourages parents of victims to sue parents of perpetrators--an action covered under state civil and education codes. “Parents are responsible for their children’s behavior, so they should be liable. But schools are the ones taking the blame.”


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