Sexual Harassment on Campus: What Are Students' Rights?

Sexual harassment is widespread on American college campuses. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), three out of five postsecondary students (women and men) report having experienced sexual harassment at school. Learn more about sexual harassment - and what to do when it happens.

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A Widespread Problem with Severe Consequences

Despite ongoing public campaigns designed to prevent sexual harassment, this destructive behavior continues to be a widespread issue in the United States. Sexual harassment is particularly rampant on college campuses, where 62% of female students and 61% of male students report having been victims of this form of mistreatment, according to the AAUW Educational Foundation. Most of the harassment is noncontact, but about one-third of students are victims of physical harassment.

Far from being harmless 'flirting' or 'joking around,' sexual harassment can have deep and long lasting effects on those who experience it. People who have been harassed report feeling upset, self-conscious, embarrassed, angry and afraid. Some students who are sexually harassed avoid classes or change their routines in an attempt to prevent repeat incidents. Experts also believe that harassment contributes to an environment of sexual violence on campus.

Sexual harassment is prohibited under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. All schools that receive federal Title IX funds are required to protect their students from sexual harassment.

What Is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment consists of any unwanted verbal, nonverbal or physical attention, or contact that is sexual in nature. Victims may be subjected to comments about their physical appearance, sex-based jokes, gender-specific put-downs or other language meant to demean, intimidate or threaten. Spreading rumors about a person's appearance or sexual activity can also constitute harassment, as can texting or emailing pictures of an individual. Nonverbal instances of harassment may include staring at someone suggestively, showing a person sexual images or engaging in other behavior intended to make someone feel uncomfortable. Physical manifestations of sexual harassment include hugging, patting or other bodily touching. Following someone or otherwise invading her or his personal space can also constitute harassment.

Harassment can occur between strangers or people who know one another very well, including couples or friends. The harasser and victim can be of any gender, and they need not be of the opposite sex. Also, the person who is the victim of the abuse doesn't need to be the target of harassment - he or she need only be affected by it. Individuals involved can include peers or faculty members. When it comes to identifying sexual harassment, a good rule of thumb is to trust your instincts.

Responding to Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is against the law and each school is obliged to create a safe campus for its students. The Office of Civil Rights has clearly instructed schools to deal with sexual harassment 'swiftly and appropriately.' Below are some steps you can take if you've dealt with sexual harassment at school.

Tell the harasser to stop. Promptly let a person know that his or her behavior makes you uncomfortable. Do not mince words - use precise language stating that you want the harassment to stop immediately.

Document the abuse. Write down what happened, when it occurred, the names of anyone who witnessed the harassment, and how it affected you. If you are mistreated on separate occasions, record every instance. Document the abuse as quickly as possible so details remain fresh in your mind.

Consider confronting the harasser via a letter. In this letter, include a factual summary of what happened, how you felt and a straightforward request that the behavior never occur again. Keep a copy for your records; it can prove a powerful piece of evidence if you must ultimately involve authorities.

Report the harassment. Check your school's policies and procedures for reporting sexual harassment. School officials are legally required to follow up on your report. You might also wish to make a police report.

Tell someone. It's important to tell at least one other person about the harassment. It can help to talk about the incident with a trusted friend, family member, or faculty member. If you find it difficult to get past the abuse, look into counseling services at your school's health center.

Do not blame yourself. You did nothing wrong, and you are not to blame for the incident. The law is designed to protect you from harassment - anything less than full protection is not acceptable. As you pursue your options, stay firm in your conviction that you and other students at your school deserve to be safe and feel comfortable on campus.

Nothing Has Changed - Now What?

If you feel an institution is not addressing sexual harassment in a satisfactory way, you can file a complaint of discrimination with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Complaints of harassment should be filed within 180 days of an incident.

Ultimately, if no action motivates your college to adequately address sexual harassment you've experienced, or if you believe a school enables a culture of harassment, you can sue the institution. Sometimes just the threat of legal action can compel schools to act more rigorously to redress past or continuing sexual harassment.

Moving onto campus for the first time? Get 10 tips for making the most of your campus experience.

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