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What should schools do when students sexually harass one another?

On Behalf of | May 9, 2022 | Education Law

When kids sexually harass each other, it can create a situation where the victims of the harassment can’t get their education safely. When schools don’t engage in a reasonable intervention, they can sometimes be held responsible for allowing a hostile educational environment, which is a form of discrimination.

It’s not emotionally easy to intervene, but it has to be done. Victims of serious sexual harassment are deprived of their right to a free, appropriate public education and possibly other rights. Students who sexually harass their schoolmates need to learn that this behavior can’t be tolerated in school or in the working world.

Basically, the school’s responsibility is to intervene in a way that is reasonably calculated to end the harassment and prevent its recurrence. When a school fails to do that, it may face an investigation or complaint from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

What might sexual harassment at school look like? Bullying that is sexual in nature

The OCR recently announced that it has resolved a complaint against the Chino Valley Unified School District in San Bernadino County. Although student-on-student sexual harassment can violate the victims’ rights to an education, in this case the problem involved school sports, specifically. That violated the victims’ right to equal access to athletics under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

The allegations were pretty stark. According to the OCR, there was a serious sexual harassment problem in one of the school’s athletics teams in the fall of 2017.

Team members subjected fellow teammates to sexual harassment such as videotaped sexual assaults; overpowering some students and then sharing photos of their genitals with other team members and posting them on social media; and placing their own genitals on or near other teammates’ bodies. The harassers engaged in this conduct on the team bus, in the locker and weight rooms and in the athletics physical education classroom, and they instructed their victims not to say anything about the harassment.

Some members of the team were so disgusted by the harassment that they felt they had to avoid the locker room, weight room and other areas necessary to participate in the sport. They avoided the team’s social media. Some sought counseling. Others who were not immediate victims said they feared becoming targets and considered quitting the team and leaving the school.

Although this harassment was clearly severe and pervasive, the OCR determined that the district failed to respond in a way that was reasonably calculated to stop it and prevent its recurrence. It also failed to consider any interim supportive measures to protect student athletes from the harassment.

Chino Valley Unified School District commits to doing better

The investigation and complaint the OCR brought against Chino Valley commits the school district to taking all necessary steps to prevent this form of discrimination in the future and to making an effort to redress the situation in the 2017 school year. The district has agreed to:

  • Contact all the athletes from the 2017 team and offer counseling services or reimburse them for counseling they have already received
  • Conduct a climate survey of the team
  • Train school and district administrators, and the interscholastic coaching staff, about their responsibilities to respond to sexual harassment in athletics
  • Conduct ongoing training for students in the athletics program to ensure they know how to recognize and report sexual harassment
  • Report back to the OCR as it completes this training and/or responds to future complaints through the 2022-2023 school year

“I thank Chino Valley Unified School District for its commitment now to ensure that its athletics program and other school activities will be free from sexual harassment,” said the assistant secretary for civil rights, “and to take steps necessary to support students subject to past harassment in school.”

If you are experiencing sexual harassment at school, your right to an education or to access school sports could be at stake. A lawyer can help you understand your legal options.