Sexual Harassment in Education Q&A

Can sexual harassment occur in education?

Yes. Sexual harassment of students is a real and serious problem in education at all levels, including elementary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities. It can affect any student, regardless of sex, race, or age. Sexual harassment can threaten a student’s physical or emotional well-being, influence how well a student does in school, and make it difficult for a student to achieve his or her career goals.

What types of sexual harassment can occur in the education setting?

Sexual harassment can take two forms: quid pro quo and hostile environment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a school employee causes a student to believe that he or she must submit to unwelcome sexual conduct in order to participate in a school program or activity. It can also occur when an employee causes a student to believe that the employee will make an educational decision based on whether or not the student submits to unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, when a teacher threatens to fail a student unless the student agrees to date the teacher, it is quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile environment harassment occurs when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it affects a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an education program or activity, or creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment. A hostile environment can be created by a school employee, another student, or even someone visiting the school, such as a student or employee from another school.

Regardless of which type of harassment occurs, a school must take immediate and appropriate steps to stop it and prevent it from happening again. The judgment and common sense of teachers and administrators are important elements of any response. However, the school is responsible for taking all reasonable steps to ensure a safe learning environment.

What does the law require?

Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on a student’s sex in schools and colleges receiving federal funds. Prohibited discrimination occurs when a school’s employees treat students differently on the basis of their sex, or engage in quid pro quo harassment, or when the school is aware of a sexually hostile environment and condones, tolerates or allows that environment to exist.

How does the federal government help eliminate sexual harassment against students?

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigates and resolves complaints alleging that educational institutions that are recipients of federal funds have failed to protect students from harassment based on sex. Complaints are often resolved by agreements requiring schools to adopt effective anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, address the incidents in question, and to take other steps to restore a nondiscriminatory environment.