Making the case that it’s sexual harassment, not bullying

Michele St. Martin (courtesy photo)

Consider this scenario: A middle-school boy-let’s call him “Tyler”-calls his classmate-we’ll call her “Ariel”-names like “bitch” and makes loud remarks about her breasts. “Hey, Tits!” Tyler has called on more than one occasion. Sometimes he catcalls when she walks by. It’s a no-brainer-Tyler’s involved in bullying, right? 

Wrong, said Susan Strauss, Ed.D., an Eden Prairie-based harassment and bullying consultant. Strauss is a groundbreaking authority whose 2012 book, “Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Guide to Keeping Kids Safe and Holding Schools Accountable,” is the go-to guide for parents and schools wanting to make sure that school is a safe place for kids. 

According to Strauss, Tyler’s behavior is sexual harassment, and it’s frighteningly prevalent. But isn’t it splitting hairs to call what everyone agrees is inappropriate behavior by one name or another? Wrong again. 

“It’s important that the behavior be correctly named because sexual harassment, or any kind of harassment, is a violation of a student’s civil rights,” Strauss said. 

Harassment is defined as unwelcome attention based on “protected class” membership such as gender, race, religion and national origin. GLBT people are protected under the Minnesota Human Rights Act. There are no federal anti-bullying laws, and state anti-bullying laws are hit or miss and unevenly enforced, she said. But state and federal civil rights laws, in particular Title IX, make it possible for students to sue school districts if they are harassed at school. 

Strauss thinks that the more schools are made aware of their liability, the safer schools will be. Schools that violate civil rights laws are subject to disciplinary action up to and including the removal of federal funding, she said. In other words, schools are likely to sit up and take notice if they are accused of violating a student’s civil rights. 

Strauss recalled the first time she testified about sexual harassment in schools. When an attorney from Utah asked her to be an expert witness in a male-to-male harassment case in the early 1990s, she told him, “I’m not an expert!” But she was-Strauss wrote a pioneering book for teachers to use as a resource manual that included one of the first sexual harassment curriculums. She did testify, and although the boy lost his harassment case, he eventually won an award of $250,000 on free-speech grounds. 

She also recalled a recent case where a first- or second-grade girl was being repeatedly sexually assaulted by a male classmate. 

“He would put his hand down her pants and try to grab her genitals,” Strauss said. “In the library, outside … in line.” The school called the behavior bullying and didn’t do much to stop it. During a lawsuit, the principal was asked what the school did to ensure it was following Title IX mandates. “[The principal] asked, ‘What’s Title IX?'” she said. 

Strauss, who currently does most of her consulting in the workplace, said that whether it’s about kids or adults, “It has to do with victimization. It’s about the ethics of doing what’s right, following the laws.” 

And she wants to level the playing field. “I don’t like it when there’s an abuse of power-in size position, gender, race,” she said. “It’s a passion of mine that people get treated with respect and dignity and equality.”