Title IX’s Demise in the Public School System

Title IX is a 1972 federal law which requires gender equity for boys and girls in every educational program that receives federal funding. This includes the vast majority of public school systems in our country.

Title IX prohibits both teacher-student harassment and student-student harassment. It also prohibits a hostile environment based on gender. The goal is to eliminate sex-based discrimination in federally assisted education programs. Every public school has an affirmative obligation to prevent sex-based harassment and to lessen the harm to students if, despite their best efforts, harassment occurs.

Almost forty years after the enactment of Title IX, a recently released study by the American Association of University Women reveal that sex-based harassment is pervasive in the public school system.

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According to the report, Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School, nearly half of 7th to 12th graders experienced sexual harassment in the last school year with 87% of those who were harassed reporting negative effects such as absenteeism, poor sleep and stomachaches.

For the purposes of the study, harassment was defined as “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Over all, girls reported being harassed more than boys—56% compared with 40%—though it was evenly divided during middle school. Boys were more likely to be the harassers, according to the study, and children from lower-income families reported more severe effects.

“It’s pervasive, and almost a normal part of the school day,” said Catherine Hill, the director of research at AAUW and one of the report’s authors.

Over all, 48% of students surveyed said they were harassed during the 2010-11 school year. Forty-four percent of students said they were harassed “in person”—being subjected to unwelcome comments or jokes, inappropriate touching or sexual intimidation—and 30% reported online harassment, like receiving unwelcome comments, jokes or pictures through texts, e-mail, Facebook and other tools, or having sexual rumors, information or pictures spread about them.

Whatever the medium, more girls were victims: 52% of girls said they had been harassed in person and 36% online, compared with 35% of boys who were harassed in person and 24% online.

Harassers come in all shapes and sizes, but the AAUW survey revealed overarching patterns. Nearly all the behavior documented in the survey was peer-to-peer sexual harassment. Boys were more likely than girls to say they sexually harassed other students (18% vs. 14%). Most students who admitted to sexually harassing another student were also the target of sexual harassment themselves (92% of girls and 80% of boys). Almost one-third (29%) of students who experienced sexual harassment of any type also identified themselves as harassers. Only 5% of students who had never experienced sexual harassment identified themselves as harassers.

It is clear from this study that Title IX’s promise of a learning environment free from sex harassment has failed miserably. Students revealed that the ability to anonymously report problems was a top recommendation (57%) as was enforcing sexual harassment policies and punishing harassers (51%). Schools which fail to address the behavior outlined in this report are inviting not only costly litigation, but a student-body which is rife with discord and distress.

Sadly, behavior which is not tolerated in the workplace has become a routine part of student life in our nation’s public schools. At a time when workplace sex harassment has taken center stage in the Republican presidential race (40% of Republicans and Independents consider the employment based sex harassment claims against candidate Herman Cain a “serious matter”), the even bigger problem of sex harassment in school has gone all but unnoticed.

It’s time for the public school system to return Title IX to it’s rightful place as guarantor of a educational environment free from sex based harassment in every form and format. Schools need to continuously publicize and promote sex harassment policies and procedures. They need to institute anonymous reporting and vigorous enforcement. Schools need to institute a zero tolerance policy for both bullying and sex harassment. If we can have drug free school zones, why not harassment free school zones too?

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