Students, their parents and advocates have also been fighting for their rights in schools in areas of the law called “sex discrimination” and “sexual harassment.” In 1972, Congress passed Title IX.  This law applied to all educational institutions, including elementary and secondary schools as well as colleges and universities, and said that they could not discriminate on the basis of sex, or else they would lose their federal funding (which is a lot of money).

Most of the publicity and controversy about Title IX has focused on the question of how to divide up the sports budgets between teams for girls and women and those for boys and men. Unfortunately, those battles continue.

Title IX helped expand student rights in other ways.  It ensured the right of students who were pregnant or were parents to attend school.  Thanks to this law, they could not be forced to study at home with a tutor, or be sent to a special school just because they were pregnant or had a baby.

Another area of debate generated by Title IX is the matter of sexual harassment occurring between students. Sexual harassment is defined as behaviors of a sexual nature that are unwanted and unwelcomed (meaning the person who is the target of the attention does not “welcome” those behaviors) that interfere with the guaranteed right to get an education and/or participate in school activities.

In this section, we will learn about students who stood up for their rights not to be sexually harassed and took their grievances to courts. To do this, they generally had to get lawyers and then sue their school administrators and school board in federal courts.

Most sexual harassment lawsuits have involved girls who have been viciously harassed by their male classmates/schoolmates, or students, both male and female, or who were either gay or lesbian or thought to be so, and were harassed on the basis of their ‘sexual orientation.” These students often get harassed in unimaginably awful ways by their peers and classmates. 

When these aggrieved students stand up for their rights, the rights of all students then benefit from the ordeals that they had to go through in order to have their grievances addressed and rights restored.

  • Law suits on Sexual Harassment in Schools

The most important sexual harassment cases involved a 5th grade girl, LaShonda Davis from the Monroe County (GA) School District, which is near Macon , GA. The case is known as Davis v. Monroe County (GA) Board of Education case, and it reached the US Supreme Court in 1999.

LaShonda Davis, a fifth grader, was touched, grabbed, and verbally harassed by a male classmate. The boy, who is only known by his initials, G.F., repeatedly attempted to touch LaShonda’s breasts and genital area, rubbed against her in a sexual manner, constantly asked her for sex, and, in one instance, put a plastic doorstop in his pants and acted in a sexually suggestive manner.

LaShonda did not respond passively to the boy’s behavior. Besides telling G.F. to stop, she also told her teachers. Her parents also complained to her teachers, and asked to have LaShonda’s seat moved. But her teachers and school officials did nothing, not even to separate the two students who sat next to each other. G.F.’s behavior was clearly having both psychological and academic consequences for LaShonda. After several months of this harassment, LaShonda’s grades fell and she wrote a suicide note.

LaShonda’s parents filed a criminal complaint against the boy and also a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school district for permitting a sexually hostile environment to exist. In the criminal action, the boy pled guilty to sexual battery.

And after five years of legal battles and appeals, the US Supreme Court, in a five-to-four decision, ruled that schools are liable for student-to-student sexual harassment if the school officials knew about the sexual harassment and failed to take action.

There have also been lawsuits initiated by gay and lesbian students against their school districts for the illegal sexual harassment they have endured at the hands of their peers. In particular, the legal victories in federal courts in cases in California and Nevada have set new standards for ensuring a safe learning environment for students.

In the case of Flores v. Morgan Hill Unified School District, six middle school students sued the school district in Morgan Hill , California , for the harassment that they endured for years.   The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in 2003 that if a school district knows that anti-gay harassment is taking place, it must meaningful steps to end it and to protect the students. The settlement requires that the school district implement comprehensive training programs for administrators, staff and students. 

Other students have also had successes in court.   Derek Henkle won his case for suffering harassment during his years at three Reno , Nevada high schools. His case resulted in a $451,000 settlement that requires the school district to implement training and explicit anti-harassment protections for students.

Katy Lyle was awarded a $15,000 settlement for "alleged mental anguish and suffering" brought on by the refusal of school authorities in her Minnesota school to deal with graffiti aimed at her in the boys' bathroom.  The sexually-explicit graffiti, which fueled  constant taunts, remained on the walls for 18 months despite more than 15 complaints by her mother to the school.  The bathroom walls were finally scrubbed clean by her brother on a visit home from college. 

  • Survey Research on Peer Sexual Harassment

There have been some surveys about sexual harassment and gender-based violence in schools. A national sample in 2001 of 2064 students in grades 8-11 found sexual harassment to be widespread in schools, with 83% of the girls and 79% of the boys indicating that they had been sexually harassed. For purposes of this survey, sexual harassment was defined as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior that interferes with your life.  Sexual harassment is not behaviors that you like or want (for example wanted kissing, touching, or flirting).” 

Students were given 14 examples of harassment that ranged from sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks to touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way, or pulled off or down your clothing. Thirty percent of the girls and 24% of the boys reported that they were sexually harassed often. Nearly half of all students who experience sexual harassment felt very, or somewhat upset afterwards, pointing to the negative impact that sexual harassment has on the emotional and educational lives of students.

As compared to the 1993 survey on sexual harassment among 8th-11th graders, the results from 2001 showed an increase both in awareness about and incidents of sexual harassment.  Yet students in 2001 had come to accept sexual harassment as a fact of life in schools.  The greatest change in the eight-year period was in students' awareness of their schools' policies and materials to address sexual harassment.

Surveys of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) students are equally alarming. In the 2001 Human Rights Watch study, interviews with 140 gay, lesbian and bisexual students along with 130 school and youth service personnel in seven states, showed daily human rights abuses of the students by their peers, and in some cases, by some of their teachers and administrators.

A larger survey in 2005 was conducted on-line with 3450 students aged 13-18 and with 1011 secondary school teachers.  It revealed a school climate that includes verbal and physical harassment because of perceived or actual appearance, gender, sexual orientation, gender expressions, race/ethnicity, disability or religion.

One third of the teens reported that students are harassed due to perceived or actual sexual orientation. Because of their sexual orientation, two-thirds of GLBT students have been verbally harassed, 16% have been physically harassed and 8% have been physically assaulted. Results from educators showed that 53% of them acknowledged that bullying and harassment of students were serious problems at their schools.

  • Fighting harassment in schools

Thanks to some good court rulings, anti-harassment training and other measures that some schools have put in place, students today are more aware of issues involving "sex discrimination" and "sexual harassment" than they were several decades ago.  We can see from the surveys, that when students are asked, they acknowledge the existence of sexual harassment in their schools.   But it takes more than awareness to make schools places where harassment no longer exists.

Click here to find out what you should do if you are a target of sexual harassment.  It is very important to stand up for your rights!

- Nan D. Stein, Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College