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Sexual Harassment

By Kristina Kauffman

Note: This module should not be interpreted as legal advice. The author is not an attorney, although she did teach constitutional law courses for many years. Be sure to review your college's harassment policies college info and speak with your Human Resources or Personnel Office if you have questions.

Couple smiling at each otherLet's be blunt:  Community College professors are very vulnerable to romantic relationships with their students.  Often our students are close to our age.  They might take several years to complete their work at the college and they may take more than one course with us, or participate in an extracurricular activity we advise.  It's easy to forget our professional boundaries and pursue a relationship.  After all, we say to ourselves, we all know community college faculty who married former students and made a happy life together.  We are all adults, right?

What we often don't hear about are those who nearly lost their career over what started as a romantic misunderstanding.  Why don't we hear?  Personnel matters are confidential and if the issue is resolved without extensive legal complications we might not hear a word about it on campus. Just because you don't think you harassed someone, doesn't mean they don't see it that way, or they won't make the accusation when feeling rejected.  So, before you pursue a current student, or make yourself vulnerable to their interest in you, stop and think.  Is this worth your career?  If the potential relationship seems worthwhile, won't it wait until the class is over?  image of stick figure pointing at another stick figure who is on their knees and bowingAnd finally, keep in mind that some students idealize their professors.  Be careful or everyone might get emotionally hurt, including you - a real human being, not an ideal. 

Real harassment is not about romance, it is about power.  Real, or imagined, appearance matters and your professional reputation is important, not to mention legal costs, loss of job and possibility that finding other employment might be impacted.  

Focus on positive, friendly relationships with students. If you find yourself vulnerable to behaviors that look like potential harassment, think about how caring faculty, that are perceived to have appropriate relationships with peers, staff and students, behave.  Seek advice.  If you have difficulty controlling your behavior, get help - including psychological counseling (often available through your health care provider).  It takes courage to get help.  You may be surprised to discover that harassment is not about romance or sex, but about power, control and self esteem issues.    

Donít be vulnerable to allegations

  • Keep your door open when talking with students.

  • If a student hints at romantic interest, avoid speaking with them alone. Go to a public place such as the cafeteria or library to meet with them. Ask another faculty member to join you.

  • Never express romantic interest to a student while they are registered in one of your classes.

  • Donít discuss sexual topics unless they are germane to specific course content


What is sexual harassment?

Harassment Occurs When:
  • An employee demands sexual favors in exchange for job benefits.
  • A student is solicited for sexual favors in exchange for better grades, references, enrollment conditions, or any other student benefit.
  • Any employee or student creates an offensive work or educational environment as the result of innuendo, slurs, jokes and/or other related acts by an employee or by another student.
  • Retaliation is threatened for filing, or notification of intent to file, a complaint of alleged sexual harassment.
  • Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, physical conduct of a sexual nature or verbal, written, or illustrated messages of a sexual nature:
    • are made or communicated either explicitly or implicitly as a term or condition of an individualís employment or educational opportunities;
    • are used as a basis for employment or educational decisions affecting such individual;
    • have the purpose or effect of interfering with an individualís work performance, educational activities or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to:
    • Direct sexual advances
    • Unwelcome written contact containing sexual meaning or intent (i.e. suggestive or obscene letters, notes, or invitations);
    • Unwelcome verbal derogatory comments, slurs, jokes, or epithets with sexual overtones;
    • Physical contact such as assault, touching, impeding or blocking movement;
    • Use of unwelcome gestures, display of objects, pictures, or cartoons which are sexually suggestive;
    • The posting of provocative or nude photos in the work place;
    • Persisting in expression of sexual interest after being informed that such interest is unwelcome;
    • Making reprisals, real or implied, or threats of reprisals following a negative response; withholding or implying the withholding of support for appointment, promotion, or permanent status; threatening with a poor performance review;
    • Encouraging an harasser or teasing the victim;
    • Engaging in implicit or explicit coercive behavior which is used to control, influence or affect the career, salary, or other working conditions of an employee;
    • Offering favors of employment benefits or working conditions in exchange for sexual favors.

What are a College's Responsibilities?

A community college has a responsibility and commitment to maintain a workplace and educational environment free from sexual harassment, exploitation, intimidation or discrimination.

    • The college may be responsible for acts of its employees, students and agents.  Your actions may cost your college thousands of dollars.  Dollars that could better be spent on student services, hiring faculty, or increasing your salary.
    • The college should create a workplace or learning environment which is free of sexual harassment.  You should expect that the college will take immediate and appropriate corrective action whenever it becomes known that an act occurred, whether this information comes from the complainant or a third party. You should also expect the college to protect you, if you are a victim.
    • If you are a harassment victim you should inform your Department Chair, Dean or Human Resources Director.

Typical Procedures

If an individual is charged with sexual harassment, the college generally launches an immediate investigation through the appropriate established procedures consistent with all statutory and constitutional due process requirements.

An informal or formal resolution of the complaint may result. Check your college policies for the process on your campus. college info

Protections:  The initiation of a complaint of sexual harassment may not cause any reflection on the complainant, and it may not affect a person's future with the college, his or her employment, compensations, or work assignments, unless the allegations are proven to be true. The same is true for students.


Sexual Harassment Terminology

Affirmative defense: Defense against harassment charges launched by an employer to illustrate that they took action to halt the harassment, or that they had no reasonable expectation that harassment was taking place.

Conditions of employment: The conditions to which an employee is subjected in the course of their work responsibilities.

Defense against harassment: Comprised by two necessary elements: That the employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any sexually harassing behavior, and that the plaintiff employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm otherwise.

Employers are liable: If they knew or should have known about the harassment and failed to stop it.

Objectively hostile or abusive work environment: an environment that a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive.

Quid pro quo: Exchange of one favor for another.

Reasonable person: Member of a jury.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides that "it shall be an unlawful employment practice for an employer…to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." It not only covers "terms" and "conditions" in the narrow contractual sense, but "evinces a congressional intent to strike at the entire spectrum of disparate treatment of men and women in employment." It is violated when the workplace is permeated with discriminatory behavior that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a discriminatorily hostile or abusive working environment, as defined by a reasonable person. Mere utterance of an epithet is not sufficient. Conduct must be severe and pervasive. Male-on-male horseplay or intersexual flirtations are not harassment.

Tort: Wrong

Tort Liability: "A master is not subject to liability for the torts of his servants acting outside the scope of their employment, unless: "(a) the master intended the conduct or the consequences, or (b) the master was negligent or reckless, or (c) the conduct violated a non-delegable duty of the master, or (d) the servant purported to act, or to speak on behalf of the principal and there was reliance upon apparent authority, or he was aided in accomplishing the tort by the existence of the agency relation."

Vicarious liability: Responsibility for the action of an employee that the employer did not otherwise endorse, and may not have known about, because they activity was perpetrated by someone with apparent authority.

Test your understanding of this subject:

1. Only women can be victims of sexual harassment.


2. Sexual harassment occurs when a student creates an offensive educational environment as the result of innuendo, slurs or jokes.


3. Unwelcome sexual advances must be explicit for them to constitute harassment.


4. Whenever sexual harassment occurs formal grievance procedures must be followed.


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