What Are Schools Teaching Their Students About Sexual Harassment?

When Aurelia Davis sent her daughter, LaShonda, to fifth grade, she had every right to expect the school to keep her child safe. Instead, LaShonda was subjected to months of sexual harassment by a male classmate. Despite repeated complaints from mother and daughter, school officials failed to stop the harassment.

What would you do if your daughter were sexually harassed at school and administrators refused to stop it?

LaShonda's mother finally went to the police, and the boy pled guilty to sexual battery. To ensure that other girls would not face the same indifference when they are harassed, Aurelia Davis also sued the Monroe County, Ga., school board under Title IX, the federal law banning sex discrimination in schools.

Davis' claim was dismissed by a district court, but the dismissal was reversed on appeal. The case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. Those opposed to her suit seek to trivialize it, saying Davis shouldn't make a federal case out of harmless grade-school teasing. After all, little boys-and girls-will steal kisses, develop crushes and even propose marriage. That's how they learn to relate to one another.

But what will students learn if the Supreme Court allows school officials to willfully ignore harassment?

LaShonda's harasser tried to touch her breasts and genitals, made crude sexual comments and repeatedly rubbed up against her. Do we want students to learn that such behavior is okay?

The boy's unrelenting harassment of LaShonda was so bad that this previously gregarious student with good grades became withdrawn; she no longer wanted to go to school and her grades plummeted. LaShonda and her mother's repeated complaints were to no avail. Her teacher refused even to let LaShonda change seats so she would not have to sit next to the boy.

Will the lesson for school officials be that such callous disregard for the well-being of girls in their care is okay?

Sexual harassment is a common occurrence in school. In a survey by the American Association of University Women, more than one in 10 middle and high school girls reported being forced to perform a sexual act other than kissing; 65 percent said they had been grabbed or pinched; and 76 percent said they had faced unwanted sexual remarks, gestures or looks at school.

In case after case school officials are alleged to have known about harassment and done nothing. Eve Bruneau complains that her school officials took no action when she and other girls in her sixth-grade class were called "bitch," "whore" and other names by boys who also snapped the girls' bras, cut their hair and grabbed their breasts.

Jane Doe says that school officials ignored her complaints that male students in her high school, who called themselves the "posse," abused her. The sexual harassment included taunts of "whore," "slut," and other words too offensive to print, and repeated, unwanted groping. Harassment eventually drove Jane from school.

Nobody feminists included wants to make a federal case out of occasional name-calling or grade-school disciplinary problems. We don't want to see kids' schoolyard squabbles in court. We don't expect federal marshals to stop cafeteria food fights.

But when officials ignore complaints of serious sexual harassment, girls are denied an equal education; they and their parents must be able to turn to the courts for relief. Lawsuits, and the threat of legal action, will give school administrators an incentive to end the sexual harassment that disadvantages girls and empowers boys in school. Without such lawsuits, girls will continue to suffer.

Every girl should be able to go to school without being groped or jeered. And parents should have the right to demand harassment-free schools for their children - even if they need a court order to do so.

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