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A New Lesson in Schools: Sexual Harassment Is Unacceptable

August 01, 1994|KRISTINA SAUERWEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

One more vulgarity, Elizabeth decided one day in April, 1992, and her right leg would crunch his crotch.

"Whore," the teen-age boy yelled. Then he grabbed Elizabeth's behind.

Thwack.

He grimaced and groaned. And he never harassed her again.

From other boys, though, Elizabeth said she continued to endure leering and jeering, grabbing and jabbing, taunting and haunting. In her thoughts and dreams, their words reverberated: whore, bitch, slut, tramp.

"I thought, 'This is what it's like to be female.' I didn't like it," said Elizabeth, 15, claiming she suffered peer sexual harassment at Los Altos Intermediate School in Camarillo.

In tears, Elizabeth told her mother, Diana, who talked to administrators. They investigated and ultimately enacted new anti-harassment policies, but Elizabeth and Diana, still not satisfied, filed a complaint in December, 1992, with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

The agency investigated their claim under Title IX, the law designed to guarantee students an education free of discrimination, but concluded that the district had taken "appropriate action" to end the harassment.

Still, "I didn't feel too safe," Elizabeth said. Her mother said the harassment eventually stopped, but she has encouraged her daughter, who soon will begin 10th grade at Adolfo Camarillo High School, to use force should it resume, "until, finally, no one bothers her anymore."

"I have to look out for myself," Elizabeth said.

*

As a result of new laws and heightened public awareness, parents have flooded state and federal agencies with complaints or inquiries about peer sexual harassment, and some have filed lawsuits; school officials hoping to forestall lawsuits are scrambling to develop policies and curriculum, and some students are publicly decrying behavior once dismissed as schoolyard teasing.

"Peer sexual harassment" is defined by attorney Jeanette Lim, director of policy and programs for the federal Office for Civil Rights, as: "Behavior so severe, pervasive and persistent that it creates a hostile environment for the student. It is usually of a sexual nature."

Five years ago, experts say, relatively few Americans realized that students were capable of such behavior, or that it even constituted harassment.

But after the 1991 Hill-Thomas hearings, cases began to surface in which students were paid damages from districts that had failed to stop peer harassment. A 1993 study conducted by the American Assn. of University Women found that four out of five teen-agers had suffered some form of sexual harassment in school.

That same year, California joined a handful of other states in enacting laws targeting peer sexual harassment--one requiring public schools to develop and distribute student policies; the other permitting administrators to expel harassers in grades 4 through 12.

The Department of Education's civil rights office has tracked what spokesman Rodger Murphey dubbed "a growth industry": 143 student complaints of sexual harassment in elementary and secondary schools during the 1992-93 academic year compared with only 15 in 1987-88. Murphey said that while some of these cases involve teachers, "a good number" are peer cases, although specific breakdowns are not tabulated.

The new laws have kept officials hopping at the state Department of Education. From July, 1993, through June of this year, the department had received 425 phoned, written, faxed or personal inquiries, about one-third of which have dealt with peer sexual harassment, said Barny Schur, gender-equity consultant.

"The issue is really taking off," Schur said. "Many used to excuse this behavior as boys will be boys. It is now being perceived as unacceptable sexual harassment."

Schur added that it is difficult to determine a total number of state cases because most are resolved at the school level. Many Southern California districts say they haven't begun tracking the number of reported incidents; they've been too busy tuning and touting their new sexual harassment policies.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, hopes to start documenting the number of peer sexual harassment cases next year, said Deanne Neiman, director of affirmative action. It became one of the first districts in the state to acknowledge the problem when, in May, 1992, it distributed anti-sexual harassment booklets in high schools. Now the 650,000-student district wants to introduce curriculum in the elementary schools.

Schur lauds the LAUSD, saying that in the past two years, he has not received a single inquiry about peer sexual harassment out of the nation's second-largest school district. He compared that to the four cases he has heard about from Modesto-area school districts (with only about 30,000 students).

*

In May, 1993, Jessica Hasenbank, 10, cowered in fear as she watched six boys slam two of her girlfriends onto the ground, stuff grass in their mouths to prevent screams, spew lewd remarks and try to strip them.

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