Experts say federal law not enough to curb sexual harassment in schools

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Capital News Service
LANSING—Sexual harassment is a problem in Michigan schools and experts say little is done about it.
Under Title IX, the federal law that deals with sexual harassment, schools are required to have a policy that covers such discrimination, said Brad Banasik, legal counsel for the Michigan Association of School Boards. Schools have reporting requirements and a legal obligation to end the harassment.
Banasik said suspensions and expulsions are common ways sexual harassment is dealt with in schools.
Despite the federal law, a national study found that 48 percent of students in grades 7 through 12 experienced sexual harassment in the 2010-2011 school year.
The study released by the American Association of University Women said that 56 percent of girls and 40 percent of boys reported that fellow students had sexually harassed them. Sexual harassment in schools can include, unwanted touching, sexual comments or harassment based on sexual orientation.
“From my experience in Michigan I would find the study to be in line with what I’ve experienced and what I’ve observed,” said Glenn Stutzky, a clinical instructor of social work at Michigan State University.
Stutzky said despite the Title IX obligations, not much is done about the problem.
“I think unfortunately where we’re at with student-to-student sexual harassment is that it has become the way that it is,” Stutzky said. “It’s become part of the fabric of their existence in schools, which is a really sad comment.”
The statistics show that while schools may have policies on the books, they’re not proving to be effective, Stutzky said.
“I think the research speaks for itself,” said Sally Doty, president of the American Association of University Women of Michigan. “We need to get this research into the hands of the school administrators, teachers and parents.”
Doty said the best thing schools could do is look at the suggestions made by students in the study because they are the ones affected. The most common student suggestions were to allow problems to be reported anonymously, improve enforcement of sexual harassment policies and punish harassers.
Anti-bullying legislation has been moving through the Michigan legislature but sexual harassment is not outlined in that statute because of Title IX, said Scott Hendrickson, legislative aide for Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland. Anderson has been outspoken about the anti-bullying legislation, saying it doesn’t go far enough to protect kids.
Acts of bullying and sexual harassment are very similar, Stutzky said.
“In their essence I don’t think there is any difference because they’re both about power and control,” he said.
Stutzky said it is vital that schools take a serious look at reforming their sexual harassment policies. He said in-service programs, open discussions and stiffer penalties for harassers would help with the problem.
“We really need to get it on our agenda at schools on a school-by-school basis,” he said. “It needs to be something that we make as a talkable subject among students, faculty and staff.”
Students who are the target of sexual harassment often lose sleep, have eating problems and struggle with academics, Stutzky said. With people in constant connection through the Internet and social networks the problem has only gotten worse.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.

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