Sexual Harassment Policies Need Reform

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Parents –
lock up your sons and daughters! From grade school to grad symposiums,
school corridors are more sexually dangerous than city streets.

That’s the
message some parents will take away from two recent and closely
connected events. It is a wrong message, based on fear mongering
and bias rather than fact.

The two events:
On Jan. 30, a 6-year-old
Massachusetts schoolboy allegedly slipped two fingers into the back
waistband of a female classmate who was in front of him in class;
he said she’d poked him first. The school reported the boy to the
police and the local district attorney’s office for sexual harassment.

Perhaps because
Massachusetts’ criminal law does not apply to anyone under 7, no
charges ensued. Instead, the boy was suspended from school for three

A week earlier,
on Jan. 24, the American Association of University Women (AAUW)
Education Foundation released a report: “Drawing
the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus (2006).”
The gist: despite
decades of aggressive and hugely expensive anti-harassment campaigns,
children have a 62 percent chance of suffering sexual harassment
if they step onto a campus.

“Drawing the
Line” continues a theme advanced by the AAUW in an earlier report
Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School” (2001)
From elementary school onward, “Hostile Hallways” found 83 percent
of girls and 79 percent of boys experienced sexual harassment.

The AAUW usually
follows such reports with policy recommendations or guidebooks that
detail how to crackdown on harassers. For example, “Hostile Hallways”
was followed by the 2003 guidebook “Harassment-Free

The AAUW is
widely credited with spreading awareness of and zero tolerance toward
sexual harassment throughout the education system.

Greg Lukianoff,
president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE),
thinks they should be credited with spreading gross misinformation
and wholesale panic. Lukianoff
“Drawing the Line” (and other AAUW material) on the
fundamentals. He rejects their definition of sexual harassment.

Lukianoff starts
with the Department
of Education’s
definition: “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature…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.”

This is a legal
definition which many, like me, would argue is far too broad and

The definition
offered by the AAUW is broader and vaguer. “Drawing the Line” defines
sexual harassment as “unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which
interferes with your life” (p2). Fifteen types of behavior constitute
sexual harassment. Topping the report’s list are “sexual comments,
jokes, gestures, or looks.”

In short, if
someone shoots an unwanted “sexual look” your way, you’ve been sexually
harassed. (Presumably the recipient of the look judges the sexual
content as well as the ‘welcome factor’.)

“Drawing the
Line” then asks surveyed students, “During your whole college life”
has anyone ever directed “sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks”
toward you or anyone you know personally? (pp.2-3)

The question
echoes one asked in “Harassment-Free Hallways.” Right after a ‘stats
panel’ stating that over 80 percent of their peers report harassment,
students are asked about their own experience of “sexual comments,
jokes, teasing, gestures, or looks.” In essence, they are asked,
“are you like other kids?”

Given the broad
definition and how questions suggest their own answers, it is not
surprising that AAUW finds sexual harassment running rampant.

It is surprising
that schools so often use AAUW-style definitions to set policy.
At best, the AAUW reports are interesting sociological surveys of
how students view their environment. Realistically, they are biased
and self-administered reports from students, who are often children.

They should
never be a basis for law or policy.

As Lukianoff
observes, this is precisely what has happened.

“With millions
of students allegedly believing they were ‘harassed’ by merely rude
or bawdy speech, it is no wonder that colleges and universities
are inundated with frivolous harassment claims and lawsuits.”

Thus, the created
hysteria “endangers free expression while trivializing actual harassment.”

In grade schools,
it also criminalizes normal childhood behavior like poking a boy
or girl you like.

Some view the
suspended Massachusetts 6-year-old as an extreme example to be dismissed
as an aberration. The facts frown upon this interpretation. The
school’s reaction was not isolated. Since 1996, when 6-year-old
was separated from his classmates in Lexington, N.C.
for kissing a little girl on the cheek, similar reports have been
in the news. (And they are only the ones that are noticed.)

Moreover, the
Massachusetts School Committee in question defines sexual harassment
as “uninvited physical contact such as touching, hugging, patting
or pinching.” The boy’s behavior fit that description.

When confronted
by an outraged mother, school officials defended their actions as
‘by the book.’ Indeed, school superintendent Basan Nembirkow said
the matter
“got out of hand” because the district’s sexual harassment
policy was closely followed.

What does it
say of a law that is blatantly unjust when enforced as written?

I think it
says the law should be scrapped along with the assumptions it rode
in on. The law should be ripped to shreds, not just modified.

The Massachusetts
school is modifying its policy in the face of overwhelmingly hostile
media coverage and a
pending lawsuit
. That’s an inadequate step in the right direction.

Another step
is to hold the AAUW responsible for the harm wrought to children
by biased reports that lump “comments, jokes, teasing, gestures,
or looks” in with real violence.

16, 2006

McElroy [send her mail]
is the editor of
and a research fellow for The
Independent Institute
in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and
editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty
for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century

(Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002).

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