What is Child Sexual Harassment?

Child sexual harassment consists of repeated unwanted sexual advances toward a minor, often in a school setting. According to researchers in this area, female and gay students are frequent targets of child sexual harassment. Some contend that this form of harassment is often overlooked or ignored. Under certain circumstances, ignoring complaints of child sexual harassment in the educational setting can result in legal liability on the part of the school.

The term “sexual harassment” was reportedly coined by feminists in the US in the 1970s during discussions of sexual exploitation in the workplace. Sexual harassment is now a legal term and is considered a form of sex discrimination under federal law and many state laws. Legally, sexual harassment is unwelcome verbal, visual, or physical conduct that is severe and pervasive. The US Department of Education defines sexual harassment as conduct that is sexual in nature, and denies a student the ability to participate in or benefit from educational programs.

Harassment can include words, gestures, taunting, sexual graffiti, and spreading rumors about the victim’s sexual identity or behaviors. Unwanted sexual touching may also in some US jurisdictions be considered battery, or sexual battery. In some cases, it can result in prosecution for sexual abuse. An isolated incident of offensive behavior of a sexual nature does not constitute sexual harassment. The behaviors must be unwelcome to be considered sexual harassment.

Child sexual harassment can be considered sex discrimination under federal law. When a school shows a deliberate indifference to a situation of sexual harassment that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively unreasonable that the harassment deprives the victim of the opportunities provided by the school, then the school potentially can be sued under Title IX of the US Education Amendment of 1972. Title IX prohibits any school receiving federal funding from discrimination based on gender.

Some researchers report that victims of child sexual harassment tend to become truant, withdrawn. They also suffer academically. Others note that perpetrators of the sexual harassment risk later becoming involved in other destructive behaviors like domestic violence or sexual assault. There appears to be a consensus that all schools should have a comprehensive policy about sexual harassment.

Advocacy groups believe that it is very important that parents learn whether their child’s school has a sexual harassment policy and if students are educated about the issue. Parents are also encouraged to talk to their children about these issues at home. Signs that a child may be experiencing sexual harassment include going to school late or leaving early, a swift drop in grades, suddenly avoiding particular places within the school, or discontinuing after-school activities.

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