Confronting Our Sexual Harassment Culture
Sexual assault and harassment have become all-too-common in schools across the United States, and BHS is not immune from the problem.
May 26, 2019
I. A Life-Changing Moment
Taylor woke up on a sunny, beautiful morning in May of her senior year, 2018. She made herself breakfast, running slightly behind schedule. Taylor drove herself to school, not knowing her life would soon be changed forever.
Later that day, Taylor was sexually assaulted following athletic practice. The perpetrator grabbed her violently, and she retaliated by hitting him back, but he grabbed her again. He told her he could do whatever he wanted with her. He then snapped, telling her it was she who was at fault for ending up in his control.
Sexual assault and harassment have become all-too-common in schools across the United States, and BHS is not immune from the problem.
Taylor is one of 55 female victims of harassment and/or assault that the Beachcomber spoke with who are current or former BHS students.
Her perpetrator has been the subject of multiple reported and unreported sexual harassment and assault allegations that include alleged rape. He remains a part of student life at BHS.
In order to protect the identities of the victims who have courageously shared their personal accounts, the Beachcomber has changed their names to ensure their physical and emotional safety.
II. Defining Sexual Harassment
Sexual harassment is an ongoing problem fueled by vulgar attitudes and ignorance, perpetuated by systemic bias and ineffective policies.
“Catcalling” and “touching someone without consent” are commonly-used phrases to describe sexual harassment.
Verbal harassment often takes the form of sexual comments about girls’ clothing, body type, whistling and/or howling.
Sexual assault describes unwanted touching pertaining to sexual intentions, or domineering. Sexual coercion is the effort to compel sexual favors; it is commonly seen when girls are subject to repeated peer pressure to “hook up.”
Former Cleveland Rape Crisis Center Prevention Specialist Constance Conner breaks down the concept of harassment more comprehensively for teenagers.
“It’s all about the boundaries and consent. ‘Yes’ means yes, ‘no’ means no and ‘maybe’ means no,” Conner said. “From all the cases I have overseen, the main idea has been the problem of impact over intent.”
III. The Victims
The American Association of University Women (AAUW) published “Crossing the Line” in 2011, a study in which researchers interviewed over 1,000 high school students and found that nearly half had experienced some form of sexual harassment in the previous year.
The Beachcomber interviewed dozens of students and alumnae from the graduating classes of 1974 to 2022. The vast majority were victims of sexual harassment and/or assault—and of those, the majority became victims prior to the age of 16.
None of the women at the time of their traumatic experiences were aware that the district had an anti-harassment policy.
According to victims who are current students, sexual harassment remains a persistent problem in the high school, and they do not feel it has been adequately addressed by staff or students.
62 of the alumnae and students interviewed were female, and 55 of them experienced some form of sexual harassment (i.e. verbal harassment, assault or coercion) in their time at BHS. All of these incidents were perpetrated by a male student or multiple male students, each of whom attended or still attends BHS. The majority of the incidents occurred either on school grounds or had a school “nexus.”
A school “nexus” is a legal term used to describe a direct connection between the incident and the school or school district. School administrators have authority to discipline students when a school nexus is established based on where the incident occurs or how it affects the learning environment.
The rate of incidence of sexual harassment and assault, according to the Beachcomber’s sources, is far higher than the rate reported to building and district administrators.
Sexual harassment can range from acute malicious phrases to violent actions. Victims describe a progression. Harassment often begins with a perpetrator articulating sexist attitudes, moving to disturbing comments, ultimately leading to violent physical traumas.
Nineteen of the 55 incidents had a school nexus, and all were perpetrated by male students attending BHS at the time. 8 of those 19 reported their experiences to an administrator.
Other women interviewed by the Beachcomber, including alumnae and current students, have also been victims of harassment or assault carried out by male BHS students, but the incidents did not necessarily have a school nexus.
Since she began working for the Beachwood City School District in 2005, district compliance officer and Pupil Services Director Lauren Broderick never received a sexual harassment report prior to three years ago, and she has only received five reports on her desk in the last three years.
The ability to speak up and disclose one’s personal trauma(s) requires courage that dissolves when the victim does not feel that there are adequate resources in place to come forward. According to TIME magazine, victims who make the gut-driven choice to speak up sometimes face backlash.
“When I did report it, I felt like everyone attacked me because [the perpetrator was penalized]. Even [other people] said it didn’t happen, or that I was lying. It’s not the first time something like that has happened with him,” said Ella from the class of 2021.
Other women said they were criticized, that their claims were discredited and that they experienced ongoing negative judgment.
A handful of victims said they feel that school leaders are not condemning these behaviors publicly, and they feel that not enough is being done to prevent them.
Some female students have attributed their fears of coming forward to the lack of gender and racial diversity in upper-level administration.
“The administration at our school is basically a boys’ club,” said senior Rachel. “…A mostly white one, too.”
“The idea of telling them that something like sexual harassment happens, even to yourself, is terrifying in the same way it’s terrifying to go to the police—they might not believe you, they might even blame you,” she added.
“Could you imagine being in a private conversation with [the principal] about being harassed? Not a chance. It’s a whole new level of discomfort,” said Kathy, a 2018 graduate.
IV. Being a Victim
What if there were a female principal? Maybe she would know what it actually felt like.
Kacey is one of 46 other girls who did not report her experience of sexual harassment. She explained why she refrained from doing so.
“I would have felt more comfortable reporting what happened to me if there was a black administrator at the upper level, not necessarily just a woman,” she said. “I feel like they would be more likely to provide discipline (to the perpetrator) over victimization (of the perpetrator).”
“In every one of my classes, [there’s] at least one or two girls who I know have been sexually harassed [by a current BHS student].”
Lilah recounted an incident that occurred in January. A boy who was driving her home stopped the car and demanded she take a photo of her breasts on his phone. He then threatened to kick her out of the car and make her walk home if she refused. It was snowing outside.
The same boy who coerced Lilah also coerced one of Lilah’s classmates in his car, as well.
“Once I was in a car with him and three others,” said Rachel, Lilah’s classmate. “[When we reached our destination and the others got out of the car,] I wanted to leave too, but he locked me in his car. saying, ‘I’m not letting you out until you have sex with me.’ I told him to stop, then he kept touching me. I hit him.”
Rachel later explained another reason why she feels so “endangered” by the prevalence of sexual harassment—in February, another disturbing incident occurred in the hallway of the school.
“…We can just pass you around,” were the words of two male juniors speaking to a freshman girl.
They proceeded to push her side to side between themselves, then called her a ‘slot machine.’
A different girl, Paige, has been referred to by many boys as a “slop machine.” She described one of these incidents as annoying and insulting.
“He looked at me and smiled, then said, ‘slop machine?’” Paige said.
According to the National Education Association, the younger the victim, the more devastating the impact.
The insulting “slop machine” reference has made Paige question her self image and self worth.
Neither girl reported their experiences to an authority, claiming that the phrases were initially used as a derogatory joke that eventually slipped out of their control.
“Telling somebody wouldn’t do anything. The school would do nothing about that stuff anyway,” Paige said.
Mara and others suggest that if administrators proactively addressed catcalls, the issue would be less likely to develop into something more serious.
“When sexual harassment isn’t addressed, it’s allowed to run rampant. Learning environments begin to feel dangerous and sexual harassment takes a place meant to feel safe and turns it upside down,” said Zia, a junior.
“It’s plain dangerous,” she added.
V. Mental Health
“Worthless” and “shameful” were the words of two students, victims of sexual assault, describing how they felt after seeing their perpetrator carry on, showing “no burden for what they have done.”
Being a victim of sexual harassment can be detrimental to one’s mental health, especially for teenagers, whose self-image is in an especially vulnerable place.
“Following my assault, I questioned my body image, I questioned my self worth, and it turned into depressive moods and attitudes, and I didn’t talk to people for a really long time,” said senior Janelle.
Psychologists have linked the impacts of sexual harassment to emotional disorders and even suicide.
Researchers at the University of Illinois completed an analysis with over 23,000 participants, concluding that being sexually assaulted remains closely associated with increased anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Studies completed by Duke University found similar results, with medical professionals concluding in 1996 that women who experienced and reported sexual assault and harassment prior to the age of 16 were three to four times more likely to attempt suicide.
“[The school’s mental health resources are] just not up to par, really,” said Janelle. “I think the school tries very hard, but at some point not enough attention goes to mental health. I do not feel as though adults today understand the resources needed to work past mental health issues.”
VI. Filing a Report
The district’s procedures for dealing with sexual harassment claims are governed by district Policy 5517.
The policy’s primary role is to provide written guidance on how harassment is to be reported in the district and how it should be addressed to ensure appropriate responses to claims.
District compliance officers Linda LoGalbo, Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and Lauren Broderick, Director of Pupil Services, are tasked with assisting others to interpret district harassment policies, including Policy 5517, which addresses unlawful harassment. Their roles further enable the school district to investigate complaints on a case-by-case basis.
“We [the district compliance officers] have worked with our district legal counsel to educate our administrators and teachers about our policy,” LoGalbo said.
There is no formal, standard guideline for compliance officers to address reports of harassment, as officers consider cases according to evidence on hand, but there are district bylaws that provide guidelines on how reports of harassment should be made to the compliance officers.
According to the school district’s attorney Dan McIntyre, ‘lower-level harassment’ would be covered by the student code of conduct, while ‘more serious and pervasive harassment’ is covered by the district’s harassment policies.
“Students should know that they can seek a remedy regardless of the type of harassment,” Broderick said.
Broderick and LoGalbo’s roles are to create remedies for both parties involved based strictly on fact-based evidence. If they believe discipline will be beneficial to the perpetrator, they make a recommendation to Superintendent Dr. Bob Hardis and a building administrator, who have the authority to impose disciplinary actions.
Beachwood City School District Policy 5517 also addresses the way a complaint of any sort of harassment may be filed. The investigator can follow either “informal” or “formal” procedures, which are recognized as “grievance procedures” by the United States Department of Education.
Informal procedures can only take place if the alleged harasser and the alleged victim both agree to participate, and the primary intention of this procedure is to “stop inappropriate behavior and to investigate and facilitate resolution through informal means, if possible.”
Both perpetrator and victim are supposed to learn from the informal procedure. A copy of the anti-harassment policy is distributed to each, or, if both parties agree, the Compliance Officer may facilitate a meeting between the alleged victim and harasser to work out a mutually acceptable resolution.
Formal complaint procedures are initiated once one of the parties involved has requested to terminate the informal complaint process, or if the formal procedure is elected initially.
Throughout the formal process, the alleged victim does not have to agree to participate collaboratively with her or his alleged harasser. Unlike the informal complaint procedure, alleged victims do not have to report their experiences to a compliance officer directly; they can choose to report an incident to any faculty member who will then be obligated to tell the compliance officer.
Investigatory measures can take place even without the alleged harasser’s compliance. The respondent has an opportunity to address the claim brought against him or her within five business days of being informed.
The formal process also explicitly states the role of the compliance officer in considering evidence brought forth by the complainant or respondent and conducting focused interviews with the complainant and respondent, which are meant to achieve safe resolution.
If the complaint is informal, the compliance officer is tasked with helping the parties find an amicable resolution. If the complaint is formal, the compliance officer’s task is to determine if the incident violates district Policy 5517.
The officers then make recommendations to all parties, including recommending disciplinary actions for the perpetrator(s). Broderick explained that other remedies may include expulsion from the BHS campus and/or implementing “wrap-around educational services,” which may include individualized behavioral interventions.
Broderick and LoGalbo stressed that the school district has a responsibility to educate all students.
However, considering that according to Beachcomber sources, there are males who remain in school and have repeatedly sexually harassed, many victims feel their safety has been jeopardized.
“I am just really freaked out by the fact that the people who can make my biggest fears come true are in the same building as I am and haven’t learned a lesson or been reprimanded for their actions,” a girl from the class of 2020 said.
Administrators emphasized that other students may not be aware of the discipline measures that perpetrators have received.
The Beachcomber inquired whether the school investigates repeat offenses of harassment as either a flaw in their discipline process or a mental health problem in the perpetrator.
“We [the district compliance officers] have an obligation to increasingly try to remedy the situation… Determining whether or not there is a mental health problem may become part of the remedy for both parties involved,” Broderick said.
The current policy states the following: “All students, administrators, teachers, staff and all other school personnel share responsibility for avoiding, discouraging, and reporting any form of unlawful harassment.”
VII. Policy Problem: The Timeline for Reporting
There are recognized psychological stages experienced by a victim of assault following their trauma.
Constance Conner, formerly of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, explains that a victim of rape or assault typically experiences at least a three-day phase of shock or denial following a traumatic incident.
This phenomenon is universal. The Prince Edward Island Rape and Sexual Assault Centre in Canada has published documents describing the typical victim’s reaction.
According to the center’s publication The Victim’s Reaction, “In the hours and days immediately following the assault, shock and denial are common reactions… The most common emotion is fear—fear of the attacker returning, of being alone, of places like the one where the assault occurred or of people who remind the victim of the attacker. Victims often feel angry, depressed, confused and irritable. Many also feel guilty, ashamed, and ‘dirty’ because they believe the myths that blame victims for the assault.”
The publication explains that many victims do not talk about the problem until long after the incident has occurred.
Many organizations committed to helping victims, such as the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, note that if a victim does disclose his or her trauma, their disclosure is often significantly delayed.
It has also been noted by the Rape Crisis Center that legal or adminsitrative involvement tends to prolong the victim’s period of shock, denial or blame. Extended periods of denial and insecurity have potential to do further damage to a victim in need of healing.
District Policy 5517 urges student victims aiming to use the informal complaint procedure to report any alleged harassment “as soon after it occurs as possible,” to ensure any witnesses or perpetrators maintain a rather lucid memory when recounting the incident during an investigation.”
District Policy 5517 urges that in order to maintain sufficient evidence in an investigation,
“…Individuals should make every effort to file a complaint within thirty (30) calendar days after the conduct occurs.”
Of the 55 victims of sexual harassment and/or assault interviewed by the Beachcomber, only three reported within the recommended 30-day timeline. Three others reported after several months, two reported after a period of years, and 46 remained silent.
Broderick emphasized that no matter how much time has passed, a victim can still come forward and request an investigation.
None of the victims were aware that Beachwood City School District had an Anti-Harassment policy.
VIII. Not Teaching Consent
Taylor, a recent female graduate of BHS assaulted on school grounds, argued another valuable point as to why the harassment problem is so rampant.
“Boys aren’t held to a high enough standard,” she said. “They aren’t held accountable in school.”
“I really think boys aren’t taught consent in the home,” said Lilah. “There’s no reason that these many boys should be harassing girls if there’s a parent in the home telling them to respect women.”
“They aren’t taught consent here [at BHS], either,” she continued.
According to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network working to combat sexual assault, it is beneficial for a child when a parents talk about physical and sexual safety in the home.
When a male student comes from a home that is not parented by individuals who promote awareness on the issue of consent, it becomes important for the school to fill in the gaps in order to help him understand appropriate boundaries.
Many of the victims interviewed felt that the school needs to do more to proactively teach boys about consent.
IX. The Accuracy of the Numbers
According to a US Department of Justice analysis published in 2016, approximately 80% of sexual assault and coercion incidents go unreported.
Based on Beachcomber reporting, the statistic may apply at BHS as well.
“I would have reported it, but everybody is so close they would find out I reported it. I would be humiliated,” said sophomore Ella. “…And that is something that I feel only the boy and the school could control.”
The environment that has evolved is one where adolescents feel that staying silent is the right thing to do.
The lack of recognition of the subject has most likely normalized the behavior, resulting in an effect described by the AAUW: “Some researchers claim that sexual harassment is so common for girls that many fail to recognize it as sexual harassment when it happens.”
The number of sexual harassment stories the Beachcomber has acquired significantly exceeds the quantity of reports both Director Broderick and Assistant Principal Patti have received.
X. Moving Forward
Broderick agrees that one of the first steps towards healing is to create a culture in which sexual harassment is viewed unequivocally as unacceptable.
While many students are all-too-familiar with sexual harassment, others have never witnessed it, nor felt the lack of comfort that accompanies it. Some students, because there have never been any informative measures on the subject, do not know they are victims.
The Clery Act, signed by Congress in 1990, requires colleges and universities that receive federal funding to provide annual security reports (ASR’s), which must include policy statements about the school’s internal preventative measures against sexual assault.
Federally funded high schools are not required to do the same.
Several victims interviewed described administrative remedies for harassment behaviors as “useless,” “pointless” and “showing this behavior is clearly [tolerated].”
The American Psychological Association has noted, “Shifts in cultural attitudes toward sexual harassment may ultimately be the most valuable tool in combating sexual harassment by creating a shared sense of public responsibility and accountability.”
Many students hold that the school must work harder to meet the cultural shift of society, demanding increased accountability and the deployment of resources to raise awareness of sexual harassment.
Leading organizations in the fields of civil rights and Title IX such as the AAUW, urge schools to establish a designated position for students to report harassment, to publicize the existence of that position and publicize the name of the adult who occupies that role.
The AAUW survey also found that an overwhelming majority of boys and girls agreed that it is critical to have a method for students to anonymously report harassment.
The second most recommended strategy was to enforce punishments against those who have been harassed.
The latter move seemed to be most favorable among many of the girls interviewed, who have the perception that perpetrators are walking away with minimal consequences.
The AAUW’s Crossing the Line study confirmed that strategies for addressing sexual harassment work best when they are exercised in a top-down fashion.
“Studies show that if administrators such as principals tolerate sexual harassment or do nothing to address it, teachers and students have less incentive and less support to do anything about it,” the study says.
The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, along with the AAUW, acknowledges that the best way for a school to deal with sexual harassment is to actively “prevent it from occurring in the first place.” The office also states “Every school must notify all students and employees of the name, office address, and telephone number of its Title lX coordinator(s).”
The DOE also firmly suggests a well-publicized nondiscrimination policy. This is a simple yet overlooked step, given that none of the BHS interviewees were aware that BHS has such a policy.
Other suggestions from the DOE include periodic sexual harassment awareness training for all school personnel and age-appropriate sexual harassment training for students.
XI: Five Steps to Follow
The Beachcomber found that many students lack understanding of the steps to take in order to report a sexual harassment allegation.
The following points are important to consider prior to reporting an inappropriate experience.
- Know the policy. If you report an incident to any faculty member or district employee, the employee is required by board policy to report the information to the compliance officer within two business days. Before a scheduled meeting with a compliance officer, do your best to come prepared with the following information: “The identity of the individual believed to have engaged in, or be engaging in, offensive conduct/harassment/retaliation; a detailed description of the facts upon which the complaint is based; a list of potential witnesses; and the resolution sought by the Complainant.”
- Help yourself first. If you have experienced trauma, assault, or disturbing harassment, give your body and mind time to rest; your body just might be in shock. Talk to a friend; find comfort discussing your experience with those who are present in your life. Then, focus on summoning the courage to come forward.
- Use the police to your advantage. In many cases when students have been sexually assaulted and/or coerced by other students but the incident did not have a school nexus, administrators may not be able to investigate the incident. If you elect to file a police report, police can obtain a search warrant, which will further enable the gathering of evidence such as GPS locations or harassing text messages, and their investigation may lead to criminal charges. Any punishments from the criminal justice system do not influence punishments given by the school. On the other hand, if the school finds it necessary to bring law enforcement officials into an investigation, there is an increased probability and opportunity for both criminal and disciplinary action to be pursued.
- Go to the Government. The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights allows individuals who wish to file a complaint with the OCR to do so. This should be done by contacting the enforcement office. To find out this information, call 1-800-421-3481. The OCR also affirms that students and parents are not required to use a school’s grievance policies before filing a complaint with the OCR.
- Use the Cyber Record. If you are being sexually harassed online or there is proof of your assault or harassment via text message, and a text was sent or received by the victim or perpetrator on school grounds, there is enough evidence for a school-sponsored investigation. Even just one text message sent or received on school grounds could be enough evidence to qualify as harassment, according to Policy 5517.