Policy Checkup: Addressing and Preventing Sexual Assault in Schools

Educators can use the #metoo movement as an opportunity to make sure their schools have policies in place to protect students and staff from sexual assault and harassment. Here’s how.
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News of sexual harassment and assault seems inescapable these days. It’s depressing and exhausting. It makes sense that we may want to draw a line at our classroom doors and end the conversation there. This impulse—to protect students who may be wrestling with their own trauma and offer our colleagues a respite from the onslaught of news—is driven by our desire to shield the people we care about. 

But avoiding the issue of sexual harassment and assault doesn’t make anyone safer. 

According to a 2011 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), nearly half of all students grades 7–12 report experiencing sexual harassment at school. An earlier study by the AAUW shows that nearly one in 10 students report that they have been subject to educator sexual misconduct. We need to talk to our students about sexual harassment and assault, but we need to check in with ourselves as well.

Here are a few questions worth asking.


Do I know the laws regarding the reporting of sexual assault?

Laws on mandatory reporting of sexual assault can be complex, so educators may be unclear about how to report suspected assault or abuse. One crucial action schools must take to improve their responsiveness to students who experience abuse is to regularly train staff on—and remind them of—their state’s mandatory reporting laws and any school- or district-specific policies. 

Separate and apart from state-specific laws, there is also a federal law, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects children from sexual assault and harassment in K–12 schools. This report, designed for California educators, offers a clear overview of Title IX. 

However, Title IX is just the beginning—there is much more that needs to be done on state and local levels. This is why state laws and specific, district-level policies on these topics are needed. And while each school district must have an assigned Title IX Coordinator according to federal mandate, not everyone is aware of this fact or knows who their coordinator is.  Finally, since Title IX addresses harassment and assault of students through the college level, the conversation surrounding Title IX tends to focus on whether or not actions were welcome, a question that doesn’t apply for those below the legal age of consent. 

“Most schools that I've studied believe they have [adequate] policies in place because they say they have a sexual harassment policy, and they say they have a mandated reporting policy,” says Charol Shakeshaft, an educational researcher who has extensively studied the problem of sexual abuse in schools. 

But there’s one place these policies often fall short. “When they cover adult-to-student [harassment], they cover it within their sexual harassment framework, which is that sexual harassment is unwanted behavior,” Shakeshaft explains. “Of course, if it’s kids, it doesn’t matter whether it’s wanted or not wanted. It’s not allowed.” 


Does my school have policies in place to address sexual harassment or assault? 

For both legal and policy reasons, experts agree that the need for policy at the district level is clear. But while many districts have created strong policies and training to help educators, students and families address bullying, school districts can and should do more to address sexual harassment and assault. 

Strong policies should provide clear definitions and expectations for teachers, students, staff and families. They should include steps for prevention but also directly address mechanisms for reporting, investigating and addressing allegations of sexual misconduct. Policies should provide for both tracking data and maintaining confidentiality, and they should be widely available to educators, staff, students and families.

Educators developing these policies don’t need to start from scratch. The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault’s recommendations for school district leaders and MassKids’ Safe-Child Standards are two good starting points.

Jetta Bernier, Executive Director of Massachusetts Citizens for Children, emphasizes the importance of collaboration in building these policies, stressing that the most effective policies involve the community. Doing so, she says, can help create a cultural shift that makes it more likely the policies will be followed and taken seriously. 

“It’s the conversation that, I think, can start to change the culture,” she says. “It’s the process of talking about it, discussing it, wrestling with it; that is what I think creates that sense that this is an environment that we all are committed to keeping safe. So it’s the conversation and the dialogue that is so critical.” 


Does my school offer training?

The transparency and collaboration that Bernier identifies as key to developing good policy are also central to ensuring that policies are properly understood and implemented. One recommendation that nearly all of these resources share is the necessity of repeated, required training for the entire school community. Yet, according to a 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office, only 18 states require sexual assault or misconduct awareness and prevention training for faculty and administrators. Only nine of these 18 included all staff in the training; only three included students and none included families.

Shakeshaft explains the importance of not only establishing policy but also publicizing it. “That doesn’t mean that, just because you have a policy, somebody won’t violate the policy. The issue here is really the bystander. That way, bystander kids and bystander adults know that [the behavior] violates policy and they know that they’re supposed to report.”

Developing a policy and keeping that policy clear, available and transparent to all members of the district community is key to keeping students safe.


What can I do? 

Learn the law. 

Understanding the laws that define sexual harassment and assault and knowing to whom disclosures or suspicions of misconduct should be reported are the first steps in supporting students. If you don’t know the laws in your state, you can find them here. If you don’t know who your school district’s Title IX coordinator is, you can find out here.


Advocate for policy and training. 

If your district doesn’t have a policy in place, there are a few ways to help move one forward. The following resources may be useful in developing policy.

The White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault released these guidelines in 2016. This downloadable document provides a section-by-section breakdown of a model sexual misconduct policy.

MassKids, with the Enough Abuse Campaign, produced Sexual Abuse Safe-Child Standards that provide six clear standards for working to prevent and address sexual abuse in schools. They also provide “action steps” which will help those drafting policy to meet each standard.

The Department of Education’s Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools published a 2017 guide, Addressing Adult Sexual Misconduct in the School Setting, which provides strongly researched background information and individual chapters on developing policy and providing training. 

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center released its “Considerations for School District Sexual Misconduct Policies” last year, which includes clear general suggestions and a useful reference list.

The Enough Abuse Campaign also produced a booklet for youth-serving organizations, which provides an overview of best practices, “A Practical Guide to Make Your Organization Safer.”

In 2007, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Preventing Child Sexual Abuse Within Youth-Serving Organizations: Getting Started on Policies and Procedures. The document provides more than 50 pages of useful information for creating and instituting policies designed to prevent and address adult sexual misconduct involving children. 

The National Womens’ Law Center published “How to Protect Students from Sexual Harassment: A Primer for Schools” in 2007. This short document provides some useful guidance for teachers dealing with harassment in the immediacy of the classroom.

The website for the National Association of School Psychologists features a page of resources including “Sexual Harassment: A Guide for School Personnel,” which provides some useful general information about developing policy.

The National Association of Independent Schools and The Association of Boarding Schools worked together in 2016 to establish the Independent School Task Force on Educator Sexual Misconduct. The final recommendations of the task force are forthcoming, and the draft form offers a wide range of useful, practical suggestions. Their page on “Preventing and Responding to Educator Sexual Misconduct” includes several informative links.

Designed primarily for students, the website Know Your IX also includes useful information for eduators working to better understand the federal law and to provide resources to students.

And formal workshop training is available through a number of resources, most notably through the Enough Abuse Campaign and Praesidium.

If you don’t feel comfortable working with the administration at your school, consider partnering with other educators in your district. And don’t be afraid to enlist allies: Families, students and community members can be powerful advocates for change. 


Work toward a culture of respect.

Of course, none of us can resolve this issue alone. But one more thing that every educator can do is work toward a culture of respect. This begins with small steps we can take today, by supporting equity for students of all genders and sexual identities, teaching students about respect and consent and talking to our students—thoughtfully and directly—about the way they want their voices heard in our national conversation about sexual harassment and assault.

Delacroix is an associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.