WEEA Equity Resource Center
WEEA Equity Resource Center
About Us
Our Services
Resources to Infuse Equity
Women of Achievement
Contact Us
Calendar of Events
Recursos en Espanol

This site is no longer active.

Resources to Infuse Equity

Report Card - Sexual Harassment

Report Card Home
| Progress Reports | Action Agenda | Executive Summary (AAUW web site)


Assessing the progress of the nation's schools in confronting sexual harassment is a challenge, since this form of sex discrimination first was recognized in the employment setting in 1976, fully 12 years after Congress enacted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace, and four years after Title IX's enactment. Just as in the employment context, sexual harassment in school is a barrier of imposing proportions to girls and women trying to move ahead, affecting female students in educational institutions ranging from elementary schools to post–graduate schools.

The Supreme Court made clear in its unanimous 1992 decision in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools that Title IX prohibits this form of sex discrimination. Despite this clear statement, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and the devastating impact it has on its victims and their ability to pursue an education remain constant. Simply put, sexual harassment remains a significant impediment to gender equity for girls and women across the board.

Looking Back. There are no benchmark data from the early 1970s regarding sexual harassment; however, the effort to combat and eradicate this barrier reaches back to just a few years after Title IX's enactment. In 1977, one year after the first district court decision recognizing sexual harassment in the workplace, a district court, in Alexander v. Yale University, identified such misconduct in colleges as a violation of Title IX. The court found that Title IX prohibits making educational benefits contingent upon sexual demands, a form of sexual harassment now known as 'quid pro quo.' Three years later, in 1980, the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs recommended that OCR issue a federal policy on sexual harassment so that schools and colleges would understand their responsibility to stop or prevent sexual harassment. During the mid–1980s, two federal courts issued opinions in cases involving medical students, again recognizing sexual harassment as a violation of Title IX. In 1992, the Supreme Court ruled in Franklin, a case involving a high school student subjected to a sexually hostile environment created by a teacher, that Title IX prohibits sexual harassment. It also ruled that persons harmed when schools violate the statute may recover damages.

Sixteen years after the National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs made its recommendation, OCR issued a policy guidance on sexual harassment. This long–awaited policy fills an important need, outlining Title IX's requirements in this area and providing schools with much needed help in defining, addressing, and preventing sexual harassment. The guidance makes clear that inaction is never the right response to secual harassment and urges schools to adopt policies and procedures that help prevent such misconduct in the first instance.

Despite these significant advances, some recent court decisions threaten to limit students' protection from sexual harassment, harking back to the days when courts dismissed such 'personal' matter, which employers should not be expected to control. For example, one federal district court dismissed a Title IX claim of student–to–student sexual harassment in 1994, reasoning that student actions are not programs or activities for purposes of Title IX. In 1996 a federal appeals court ruled that schools can be liable for student–to–student sexual harassment only when they treat the complaints of boys differently than those of girls–– effectively advising schools to ignore complaints of all students. These courts opinions suggest that sexual harassment is just a fact of life that should be tolerated and not regulated or eradicated through the judicial system, an attitude long abandoned in the context of employment. These decisions ignore the scope of the problem and the impact harassment has on its victims' ability to receive an education.

The Scope of Sexual Harassment. Sexual harassment is widespread, affecting girls and boys, students in elementary through postsecondary schools. Originally, efforts to address secual harassment focused on students harassed by faculty. In recent years, additional focus has been placed on student–to–student harassment. Regardless of the form, research has shown sexual harassment to be a barrier to students across the board as they pursue educational opportunities.

The Pervasive Reach of Sexual Harassment
  • 81 percent of eighth through 11th graders surveyed have experienced sexual harassment.
  • 79 percent of eighth through 11th graders reporting harassment say they were targeted by another student.
  • Approximately 30 percent of undergraduate students and 40 percent of graduate students surveyed have experienced sexual harassment.
  • Approximately 90 percent of postsecondary students reporting harassment say they were harassed by another student.

According to a 1993 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation, 81 percent of students surveyed in eighth through 11th grades had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with girls experiencing harassment at a slightly higher rate than boys––85 percent versus 76 percent, respectively. Similar results were reported most recently by a 1996 survey conducted by the USA Today/Weekend. AAUW found that sexual harassment had a stronger emotional impact on girls, causing many to lose interest in school and diminishing their academic performance.

Combating Sexual Harassment:
Effective Sexual Harassment Policies

The first step in preventing sexual harassment is developing an effective policy to combat it. Some key elements include:
  • User–friendly language, demonstrating the institution's commitment to ending sexual harassment and other forms of harassment.
  • Definition of sexual harassment, making clear that harassment is a violation of Title IX. The definition should include examples of prohibited conduct.
  • Procedures to be followed for making formal and informal complaints of sexual harassment, identifying the contact person.
  • Provisions to protect victim's confidentiality and ensure no retaliation.
  • Description of other legal remedies available to victims, including filing a complaint with the regional OCR office.
  • Wide accessibility of the policy throughout the institution.

Sexual harassment affects students of all ages. The AAUW Educational Foundation's study found African American girls experienced harassment even before they reach grade six. Other studies indicate that, at the college level, approximately 30 percent of undergraduates and 40 percent of graduate students had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with student–to–student sexual harassment the most common occurrence by far––about 90 percent of students reported experiencing this form of harassment. The breadth of the problem also is reflected in the increasing number of complaints filed at the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. In 1988, OCR received 28 sexual harassment complaints; by 1996, that number had increased to 152.

Inaction by Educational Institutions. The detrimental effects of sexual harassment are only compounded by schools' failure to have policies and procedures in place to address this issue meaningfully. For example, only 8 percent of the respondents to a study conducted in 1993 by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and Wellesley College Center for Women reported that their school had and enforced a policy on sexual harassment. Schools without policies are less likely to take action against an alleged harasser: schools with policies took action in 84 percent of cases, compared to schools without policies doing so only 52 percent of the time. Some schools have adopted policies, such as Framingham High School in Massachusetts, which enlists the support of all teachers to help students who have been harassed. However, far too many schools have not developed meaningful policies that are comprehensible and accessible to students and parents.

Title IX Enforcement. As useful as the newly released sexual harassment policy guidance is, it is no substitute for systemic and targeted enforcement on the part of OCR. Beyond issuing the guidance and addressing individual Title IX complaints in this area, OCR has not made use of its authority to conduct compliance reviews to ensure that educational institutions have policies in place and are addressing sexual harassment appropriately. In addition, OCR needs to make a greater effort to ensure that educational institutions are aware of the new policy and their obligations under Title IX. This important piece of the enforcement effort is critical to eradicating sexual harassment.

Grade: D+


  • OCR should increase its enforcement, making use of its authority to conduct compliance reviews and refer cases to the Department of Justice.
  • OCR should work systematically with community–based organizations and advocacy organizations to heighten awareness and conduct technical assistance about sexual harassment and the new policy guidance.
  • Other federal agencies should adopt OCR's sexual harassment policy guidance and devise and pursue their own enforcement strategies for the education programs and activities they fund.
  • Educational institutions should adopt strong, comprehensive, and comprehensible sexual harassment policies and enforce them.
  • Educators should recognize that sexual harassment is a symptom of ongoing gender bias and incorporate teaching methods to address and eliminate this form of discrimination in the classroom.
  • Alexander v. Yale University, 459 F. Supp. 1 (D. Conn. 1977), aff'd 631 F.2d 178 (2d Cir. 1980).
  • Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 862 F. Supp., 363 (M.D. Ga. 1994), aff'd and rev'd in part, 74 F.3d 1186 (11th Cir. 1996), vacated and reh'g en banc granted (11th Cir. 1996).
  • Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992).
  • Jean O'Gorman Hughes and B.R. Sandler, Peer Harassment: Hassles for Women on Campus (National Association for Women in Education).
  • Lipsett v. University of Puerto Rico, 864 F.2d 881 (1st Cir. 1988).
  • Moire v. Temple University School of Medicine, 613 F. Supp. 1360 (E.D. Pa. 1985).American Association for Women, Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment in America's Schools (AAUW Educational Foundation, 1993).
  • Suzanne Rice, 'The Discovery and Evolution of Sexual Harassment as an Educational Issue,' 57 Initiatives 1 (1996).
  • Rowinsky v. Bryan Independent School District, 80 F.3d 1006 (5th Cir. 1996), cert. denied, 117 S.Ct. 165 (1996).
  • B.R. Sandler and R. J. Shoop, eds., Sexual Harassment on Campus: A Guide for Administrators, Faculty and Students (Allyn and Bacon 1997).
  • Nan Stein, Nancy Marshall, and Linda Tropp, Secrets in Public: Sexual Harassment in Our Schools (NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund and Wellesley College Center for Women, 1993).
  • Susan Strauss with Pamela Espeland, Sexual Harassment and Teens: A Program for Positive Change (Free Spirit Publishing).
  • U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 'Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties,' 62 Fed. Reg. 12,034 (March 13, 1997).
  • USA Weekend, 'The Difference Between Girls and Boys,' September 8, 1996, p. 4.
  • Verna Williams, 'In Search of a Vision: Gender Equity in Education in the Clinton Administration,' New Challenges: The Civil Rights Record of the Clinton Administration Mid–term, 131 (Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, 1994).
  • Verna Williams and Deborah Brake, 'When a Kiss Isn't Just a Kiss: Title IX and Student–to–Student Harassment,' 30 Creighton Law Review 423 (February 1997).






About Us | Our Services | Resources to Infuse Equity
Publications | Women of Achievement | News
Links | Contact Us | Calendar of Events | Recursos en Espanol

Gender Equity Works for All

WEEA Equity Resource Center
55 Chapel Street
Newton, MA 02458-1060

This site is no longer active.

Site questions and comments:genderdiversities@edc.org


Education Development Center