Sexual Harassment and the Health of Children

Monday, May 20, 2019

As the #MeToo movement has brought much-needed attention to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s also important to recognize the problem of sexual harassment in elementary, middle, and high schools. The consequences for student health can be severe-- children suffer physical, emotional, and educational harms including physical injury from rapes and batteries, PTSD, sleeping and behavioral problems, dropping out of school or changing schools, attempted suicide, and suicide. Professor Ann McGinley has written about Schools as Training Grounds for Harassment and discussed her research at the University of Chicago Legal Forum 2018 symposium: Law in the Era of #MeToo.


As Prof. McGinley observes, there is little understanding that harassment is rampant in schools from pre-kindergarten through high school. Victims are both boys and girls, and the behaviors that constitute unlawful sex- and gender-based harassment can be sexual, gendered, or even gender- and sex-neutral. So long as the behavior occurs because of the victim’s sex or gender and is sufficiently severe or pervasive, it is illegal under federal education law (Title IX’s prohibition of sex discrimination in schools that receive federal funding).


In studying school-based harassment, Prof. McGinley draws on “masculinities theory,” which she has developed in the area of sexual harassment in the workplace. As this theory reflects, much harassment occurs in order to reinforce boys’ and men’s masculinity, to denigrate those who do not conform to expected gender norms, and to draw the boundaries of appropriate gender behavior. Because these behaviors occur because of sex, they often violate Title IX. In fact, what educators, members of the public, and many social scientists call “bullying” often occurs because of sex or gender and is illegal under Title IX.


Unfortunately, many educators normalize sex- and gender-based harassment: many faculty members and administrators either ignore the harassment or participate in it themselves. As indicated, the costs to child health can be profound.


While the U.S. Department of Education, through Republican and Democratic administrations, has taken important steps to protect children from sex- and gender-based harassment, it has proposed new regulations that would hamper enforcement efforts. This reversal of course would leave many children in serious danger of physical, emotional, and educational harm and should be abandoned.