Harassment, Bullying, and Discrimination on Campus
All campuses – universities and K-12 schools, deal with harassment, discrimination, and bullying at all levels. While there has been a targeted effort to prevent them on campuses across the country, the truth is sexual and gender-based harassment remain pervasive on campus.
Universities and schools need to be prepared to properly address these issues. While having an established anti-bullying policy in place is a good start, that is not enough to comply with Title IX. If a school has a problem where harassment is severe, pervasive, or persistent enough that it creates a hostile school environment—meaning that it interferes with or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from school, including all activities and services – that school must take prompt and effective action against the harassment. This applies to any sexual harassment that the school either knows about or reasonably should have known about.
While much of the focus should be on prevention and supporting victims, schools also need to be prepared to address what happens when claims of discrimination, assault, or harassment are brought forward. If schools get it wrong either through prevention or investigation and punishment, they could face a life-threatening and/or costly future.
According to one study institutions are spending in excess of $200,000 fighting lawsuits brought by students who argue the school did not follow their own policies during the investigation process. These accused students also frequently alleged violations of Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, saying that their colleges had treated them differently because they were male.
Another common claim in lawsuits against schools or universities was negligence, in which students asserted that campus administrators and other people involved hadn’t been properly trained to conduct sexual-assault investigations or had done a poor job of carrying out their responsibilities.
Harassment, Discrimination, and Bullying
While the data show that victims of sex-based discrimination are more often female, all genders and races are victims.
In a study published by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education (NCWGE), “nearly half of middle and high school students report being sexually harassed, including 40% of boys. Harassment is particularly extensive among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students, with nearly a third saying that harassment made them feel unsafe or uncomfortable enough to miss school.
Additionally, more than 60% of college undergraduates experience some form of sexual harassment, with nearly equivalent numbers for men and women. Most disturbingly, more than 20% of women and 5% of men report being raped or sexually assaulted in college.”
This harassment can take many forms. According to StopBullying.gov, 70% of students across the country report that they have seen bullying in their schools. Nearly 45% of girls and 22% of boys report that they are verbally harassed. Some estimates are that 30% of all students are affected by some form of cyberbullying or electronic harassment including sexual harassment by text, email, or social media. Many students harassed electronically report that they are also harassed in person. While there is no federal law against bullying, when bullying is also harassment, it does break the law.
The NCWGE report found
“physical harassment was disturbingly common, particularly among girls. Unwelcome touching was reported by 13% of girls and 3% of boys, while 4% of girls and fewer than 1% of boys said they had been forced to do something sexual.
“The survey revealed a cycle of harassment, with many victims reporting that they victimized others. Most students who admitted to sexually harassing another student (92% of girls and 80% of boys) were also targets of sexual harassment themselves.”
LGBTQ students are frequent victims of sex-based harassment in school. Survey data collected in 2010 from undergraduates on college campuses found that 5.2 percent of LGBTQ students or those who were questioning their sexual orientation had been sexually assaulted on campus.
From the report by the NCWGE, “many of these students face harassment that is serious enough to make them stay away from school activities or miss school altogether. A GLSEN national survey of 10,528 students in grades 6 through 12 conducted in 2015 found that the overwhelming majority of LGBTQ students face some form of sex-based harassment:
- “A full 85% of LGBTQ students experienced verbal harassment at school based on a personal characteristic—most commonly sexual orientation (71%) or gender expression (55%)—during the prior school year.
- More than a quarter of these students (27%) were physically harassed (e.g., pushed or shoved) at school in the prior year because of their sexual orientation, and 20% were physically harassed because of their gender expression.
- Some 13% were physically assaulted (e.g., punched, kicked, injured with a weapon) because of their sexual orientation, and 9% because of their gender expression.
- Almost half of LGBTQ students (49%) were harassed or threatened by their peers via electronic media.
- Nearly a third of of LGBTQ students (32%) missed at least one day of school in the prior month because they felt unsafe or uncomfortable, and 10% missed four or more days.”
In the News
In the wake of #MeToo, many schools, like many workplaces, have seen their problems come to light. Like many employers, universities around the country have been working to reevaluate their harassment policies and proactively remove faculty, staff, or students violating their policies.
One recent example in the news: the University of California released records on 124 sexual abuse cases across their 10 campuses. The cases ranged from a professor who wrote more than 300 poems to a graduate assistant, confessing his love. Others were related to sending sexually explicit jokes to colleagues, professors that engaged in “unwelcomed verbal conduct of a sexual nature that was found to be sufficiently severe that it created a hostile environment and interfered with a complainant’s study and work,” and yet more of the cases were related to sexual assaults.
The University reported that students reports about 35 percent of the cases. Most were from university employees.
Part of the problem exists because toxic culture have created an uneven balance of power with minority groups – including women – having less power. However, part of the problem with harassment, discrimination, and bullying on campus is there is a wide-ranging set of experiences, groups, and organizations on campuses that the school may not have direct control over but can directly impact how students are treated.
One example, at Yale, shows how hard it can be to effectively manage a safe place for students attending school. Several women sued the university because of sexual assaults that had happened at Greek fraternity parties. The students bringing the lawsuit allege that there are few other options for students to socialize outside of Greek parties, however at these events women were groped or openly discriminated against because of their race.
In response to the lawsuit, the dean said
“Yale plays no formal role in the organizations not affiliated with the university, including Greek organizations,” and he said the university was working on providing alternative social spaces and events on campus.
The lawsuit acknowledges that there may be questions about Yale’s ability to regulate off-campus organizations.
“Yale often claims that the university cannot punish the fraternities because they are unregistered, off-campus organizations,” the lawsuit says.
But it argues that this position is disingenuous, because the fraternities “act as extensions of Yale,” providing party space, while Yale permits them to use the Yale name, Yale email addresses, Yale bulletin boards and campus facilities for recruitment.”
Fixing the problem
While there are still many difficult questions to answer about how to prevent harassment, discrimination, or bullying on campuses, there are things schools can do right now for their employees and students.
In a series of case studies and recommendations published by United Educators, they have several suggestions for colleges to try to avoid becoming embroiled in legal trouble. They said the best thing schools can do is to have a consistent and clear policy about what people are supposed to do and when.
The paper said “lacking clarity in campus policies was one of the biggest problems. In one case, a college didn’t make clear how its adjudication process would work or who was permitted to attend a hearing, nor did it explicitly address whether and how the alleged victim and perpetrator would be notified of the outcome.”
One study, referenced at the beginning of this paper related to harassment of LGBT students, suggests that improving campus climate for sexual- and gender-minority individuals may reduce their prevalence of college sexual assault, which has potential implications for college practitioners and administrators as well as sexual assault prevention programs and policies.
High as they are, rates of harassment among LGBTQ students have declined in recent years, thanks to increased awareness and advocacy. Surveys between 2001 and 2015 show consistent drops in the number of LGBTQ students reporting “frequent” verbal or physical harassment or assault, coinciding with increases in the availability of resources such as supportive teachers and gay-straight alliances. Additional support measures, including policies specifically protecting LGBTQ students, would help make a difference both for these students and for the overall learning environment.
In 2016 the University of Wisconsin put together a task force to address sexual assault and harassment on their campus and see how well the University was complying with state and federal regulations related to harassment, assault, and discrimination. A work group within the task force put together several recommendations:
- “Continue the effort to get all employees and first-year students to take sexual misconduct training on prevention, reporting and resource awareness
- Make resources available for periodic advanced training for employees who respond to reports of sexual misconduct.
- Develop policies at each campus that conform with regent policies regarding consensual relationships and sexual assault and harassment.
- Step up technological efforts to collect data on incidents.
- Allow individual institutions to develop processes of record keeping, training and response, as long as those efforts fall within specific parameters.
- Develop a standard process for sexual assault incident reports, from a central office for intake through final determination.
While not all these recommendations have been put into place in full effect yet, the University was able to report at a February 2019 meeting with their Board of Regents that “all University of Wisconsin System employees and 87 percent of students have completed sexual assault and harassment training.”