Sexual Harassment in Schools

Nan Stein, Ph.D.
National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center
Wellesley Centers for Women, Wellesely College Stone Center

What is sexual harassment in schools?
    Sexual harassment in schools is unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with the right to receive an equal educational opportunity. It is a form of sex discrimination that is prohibited by Title IX, a Federal law establishing civil rights in education that addresses issues of sex discrimination and, by judicial precedent, sexual harassment. Sexually harassing behaviors that can interfere with oneís educational opportunity range from words (written and spoken) and gestures to unwanted physical contact. Some of the behaviors may also be criminal acts (assault and rape, attempted or completed and child sexual abuse).

    Both the Federal courts and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education (ED) recognize two forms of unlawful sexual harassment in education. The first form is quid pro quo harassment as defined by the guidance in the "Federal Register," issued on March 13, 1997, by the OCR (ED, 1997). Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a school employee explicitly or implicitly conditions a studentís participation in an education program or activity or bases an educational decision on the studentís submission to unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature. Quid pro quo harassment is equally unlawful whether the student resists and suffers the threatened harm or submits and thus avoids the threatened harm (ED, 1997).
    The second recognized form of sexual harassment in schools is hostile-environment harassment. Hostile-environment harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature by an employee, another student, or a third party. This form of harassment requires that the harassing behavior be sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive so as to limit a studentís ability to participate in or benefit from an educational program or activity, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment (ED, 1997). Typically, in school settings and particularly between students, allegations of hostile-environment harassment are more commonplace than allegations of quid pro quo harassment.

How common is sexual harassment in schools?

Hostile Hallways, released in June 1993, was based on a survey conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, Inc., in partnership with Scholastic, Inc., with funding from the American Association of University Women Foundation. The national probability sample of schools and students is generalizable to all public school students in the 8th through 11th grade at the 95 percent confidence level, with a margin of error of Ī .04 (AAUW, 1993, p. 5). This rigorous survey firmly established that there was a universal culture of sexual harassment with no significant racial differences flourishing in Americaís secondary schools.

    Hostile Hallways randomly sampled 1,632 boys and girls (828 boys and 779 girls) in grades 8Ė11 in 79 public schools; classes and grades were also randomly selected within the schools. A random sample of schools was selected from the database of public schools at the National Center for Education Statistics with a proportionally drawn sample by grade and regional location. African-American and Hispanic students were over-sampled. The sample was 15% African American, including 120 African-American females and 138 African-American males, and 9% Hispanic, including 70 Hispanic females and 78 Hispanic males.

According to Hostile Hallways, 83% of the girls and 60% of the boys reported experiencing sexual harassment in school.
    A similar study, conducted in Connecticut during the 1993-94 school year and released in January 1995, surveyed 547 public high school students in grades 10 through 12 . (In Our Own Backyard: Sexual Harassment in Connecticut's Public High Schools, Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, 1995)

    The representative sample of students from seven school districts selected by the Connecticut Department of Education included 308 females, 235 males, and 4 students who did not indicate their gender. Participating school districts were judged to be representative of the socioeconomic status and age of students throughout the State. The sample was 78% Caucasian, 8% African American, 6% Latino, 4% Asian, and 4% other or unidentified. No age range was provided in the report.

    Seventy-eight percent of students reported experiencing at least one incident of sexual harassment since starting high school, including 92% of the females and 57% of the males (Carlson, 1995; Potopowitz, 1995). Female students reported, on average, a higher number of incidents of unwanted behavior (since they started high school) than male students (4.5 incidents for girls and 1.6 for boys).What types of school sexual harassment are most common?

    According to the AAUW survey these are the most frequently types of sexual harassment experienced in school in grades 8Ė11:

Types of Sexual Harassment Experienced:



sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks



Touched, grabbed, or pinched in a sexual way



Intentionally brushed up against in a sexual way



flashed or mooned



had sexual rumors spread about them



had clothing pulled at in a sexual manner



The Connecticut survey results were similar:

Types of Sexual Harassment Experienced:



sexual comments about parts of your body; what type of sex youíd be good at; your clothing; or your looks



Unwanted touching, pinching or grabbing



Suggestive sexual gestures or looks, such as howling, whistling, or suggestive lip licking



leaned over; cornered, or blocked from moving; or followed too closely in a sexual way



been told unwanted offensive sexual jokes



been the victim of sexual rumors spread about (you)



had your bra snapped



Where does sexual harassment occur?

Of the 81 percent of the students in the AAUW survey who reported experiencing sexual harassment in school and the 52% of students in the Connecticut study who gave information on the most upsetting incident of sexual harassment that they had experienced these were the reported locations of the harassment:

Locations Sexual Harassment Occurred:

AAUW survey

Connecticut survey

in the hall



in the classroom



outside of school, on school grounds (other than the parking lot)



in the gymnasium, on the playing field, or pool area



in the cafeteria



in the school parking lot



other places (includes parking lot, school grounds, etc.)



Itís important to note that two-thirds of the incidents reported in both studies occurred in public.

Who is doing the harassing?

The AAUW study reports that 18% of the students who have been harassed were harassed by a school employee and 70% have been targeted by another student. Harassers included:

Who the Harassers Are:



a member of the opposite sex acting alone



a group of members of the opposite sex



a mixed group of males and female



a single member of the same sex



a group of members of the same sex



Two-thirds (66%) of all boys and more than half (52%) of all girls admitted that they had sexually harassed someone in a school setting.

According to the Connecticut study, the perpetrator of the most upsetting incident of sexual harassment was a single person in 57% of the incidents, though 24% of the students indicated that a group caused the most upsetting behavior. The perpetrator was identified as:

An acquaintance


a friend


a boyfriend/girlfriend


a stranger


a teacher, coach or other staff member


Seventy five percent of the people responsible for the most upsetting behavior were male, and 25% were female. In 16% of the reports on all sexual harassment experience at school, the individual was the same sex as the student reporting and in 91% the harasser was not of the same sex as the victim.At what grade level does sexual harassment start?

Hostile Hallways (AAUW, 1993) reports that a studentís first experience of sexual harassment is most likely to occur between 6th to 9th grade, with 7th grade being the most common: 40% of boys and 54% of girls who have been harassed fall into this group. 34% of girls and 32% of boys were first harassed before 7th grade. 42% of African American girls and 40% of Hispanic girls have been sexual harassed, compared with 31% of white girls.

What recourses do victims of school sexual harassment have?

If a student is a victim of sexual harassment s/he, a parent or other individual should contact a teacher or school administrator to file a complaint. If the school fails to take action to remedy the situation, a student should make his/her complaint known to the school district. If satisfactory action is still not taken, a student may file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Educationís Office for Civil Rights and/or turn to the federal courts.

What responsibility do schools have to end and/or prevent sexual harassment?

According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rightsí guidelines, schools are required by the Title IX regulations to adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt and equitable resolution of all sex discrimination complaints, including complaints of sexual harassment. Students should be notified of the procedures which should be written in language appropriate to the age of the school's students. Without a widely understood grievance procedure in place, a school (or school district) is held liable regardless of whether or not sexual harassment has occurred.

A school that does have a grievance procedure is liable for any conduct of its students that creates a sexually hostile environment where (a) the school knows (or should have know) of the harassment, and (b) the school fails to take immediate and appropriate steps to remedy it.


American Association of University Women. (1993). Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America's schools. Washington, DC: Author.

Permanent Commission (CT) on the Status of Women (1995). In our own backyard: Sexual harassment in Connecticutís public high schools. Hartford, CT: Author.

Stein, N. (1999) Classrooms and courtrooms: Facing sexual harassment in K-12 schools. New York, NY; Teacherís College Press, Columbia University.

U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (1997) Sexual harassment: Itís not academic. Washington, D.C.; Author. (also available at
Feedback Join Us Site Map VAWPrevention Home
  National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center © Copyright 2000
(843) 792-2945/telephone       (843)  792-3388/fax