When you think of disciplinary violations in high school, you probably imagine cheating on a test, talking back to the teacher, or minor fights in the lunchroom. But schools are also obligated to investigate and discipline much more serious matters, including sexual harassment.
In 1972, lawmakers enacted Title IX, a law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in public educational institutes and programs. Title IX protects victims from sexual discrimination, including sexual harassment. But its guidelines can also create new victims. Federally-funded schools risk losing funding if they fail to follow Title IX procedures, so some rush to punish the accused without sufficient proof.
Private schools that do not accept federal funding are not subject to Title IX rules, but students accused of sexual misconduct may still be at risk for injustice. Privately educated students are not guaranteed the same rights as those in public schools, and may not have a chance to defend themselves against accusations. Additionally, private schools usually have respected reputations to uphold and may rush to a judgment to keep up appearances.
If you are a high school student, or the parent of a high school student, facing sexual harassment accusations at school, you need a professional to protect your rights. An experienced attorney-advisor can guide you through sexual misconduct and Title IX proceedings to ensure fairness. Title IX Attorney Joseph D. Lento offers years of experience in student disciplinary cases, including sexual harassment, and knows how to protect the rights of the accused.
More on Title IX
Introduced in the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX is a law that bans discrimination of any person based on sex in educational programs, including public colleges, secondary schools, and elementary schools.
The law applies to all students and faculty members, including males, females, and non-binary individuals. It states:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Educational institutes that do not adhere to Title IX may lose their federal funding. Thus, most schools are eager to punish alleged sexual misconduct, including harassment, quickly and harshly. Often, the base level of punishment is suspension.
What is Sexual Harassment?
The commonly-held definition of sexual harassment is unwanted sexual advances, either verbal and physical. It often occurs when the harasser holds a position of power over the victim—for example, teacher to student, principal to teacher, or senior to freshman—although this dynamic isn't always the case.
Under Title IX, sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual conduct that is “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” to a degree that negatively impacts the victim's access to education. However, different schools and state departments of education have created their own policies that define other behaviors as sexual harassment, even if they don't directly meet the Title IX standard. For example, the San Diego Unified School District's sexual harassment policy states that incidents of sexual harassment do not have to be persistent or pervasive if they are severe. Additionally, Chicago Public Schools including dating violence, domestic violence, and stalking in their definition of sexual harassment.
In a professional environment, a common example is a boss threatening dismissal or demotion unless an employee provides sexual favors. In a school setting, it can be difficult to recognize sexual harassment, especially since different schools have their own definition. Thus, it's imperative to read and understand your school's code of conduct or student handbook to know what they consider to be sexual harassment.
Examples of sexual harassment in high schools include (but are not limited to):
- Unwanted physical contact, including pinching, grabbing, or brushing against someone
- Threatening to spread rumours about a peer if they do not perform sexual acts
- Making inappropriate comments about someone's physical appearance, sexual orientation, or gender identity
- Repeated and unwanted requests for dates or sexual favors
- Showing pornographic images to a peer without their consent
- Sharing sexually explicit images of another student, either online or in person
- Making graffiti on bathroom stall walls with sexually demeaning remarks about a peer
Of course, sexual harassment is a serious offense and must be treated as such. But when someone hurls accusations, both sides should be given a fair chance to defend themselves. Unfortunately, newly proposed changes to Title IX guidelines may lead to increased bias against the accused in public school sexual harassment claims.
The Biden Administration and Title IX
Title IX rules can fluctuate with changing presidential administrations, and with these fluctuations come wildly different experiences for both the accuser and the accused in federally-funded high schools.
In 2011, the Obama administration enacted new Title IX guidelines that favored accusers in sexual misconduct cases, including lowering the burden of proof, not requiring the accuser to face cross-examination, and broadening the definition of sex-based discrimination and harassment. These changes were meant to protect victims, but some argued that they paved the way for false allegations and unfounded disciplinary action against those accused.
Years later, the Trump administration's Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, reversed President Obama’s changes and increased protections for the accused. Some of these changes include the right to cross-examine the accuser and a stricter definition of sexual harassment. DeVos enacted these changes on the grounds that the Obama-era reforms enabled schools to violate the rights of the accused, ignore due process, and push for premature disciplinary action.
Now, with the Biden era in full swing, we face more potential Title IX changes—more in line with the Obama administration. While many embrace the proposed updates, others fear that they are biased in favor of the accuser. High school students may face disciplinary action for baseless sexual harassment allegations. This bias is extremely concerning, especially since sexual misconduct accusations can have lasting negative impacts on the accused—in high school, college, and well beyond.
With so many back-and-forth changes to Title IX guidelines, it's no wonder most people are confused about individual rights and school responsibilities in sexual harassment claims. This confusion is all the more reason to hire an attorney-advisor with experience in school sexual harassment and Title IX proceedings.
Sexual Harassment in Private Schools vs. Public Schools
Many private high schools receive funding through tuition and donations. If they do not receive federal funding, they are not subject to Title IX. However, this distinction doesn't mean they won't take sexual harassment claims seriously.
Private schools have their own codes of conduct to which all students must adhere. As privately-funded institutions, these schools can create any set of rules they like, and students do not have the same government-mandated rights as those in public schools. For example, in the 1975 U.S. Supreme Court case Goss vs. Lopez, a federal judge ruled that based on the Fourteenth Amendment, public schools are required to notify students and conduct a hearing prior to suspension. Private schools, on the other hand, are not obligated to do so, and students are not entitled to appeal any negative decision.
But that doesn't mean you can't protect yourself. An attorney-advisor like Joseph D. Lento—experienced in private high school disciplinary hearings—will know how to thoroughly understand your school's code of conduct, compare it with your situation, and defend your rights.
Repercussions of Sexual Harassment Accusations
Public schools are highly motivated to protect their federal funds, and private schools are eager to uphold their reputations. Thus, both types of schools may react harshly to those accused of sexual harassment. In sexual misconduct proceedings, most schools would rather move forward with disciplinary actions instead of thoroughly investigating claims. If you have been accused of sexually harassing a student, teacher, or other school employee, punishment may be swift and severe.
You may also face many negative effects in your personal life, education, and future career. Sexual harassment allegations are extremely serious, especially in recent years. With newfound attention on sexual misconduct and increased pressure for justice, those accused may endure lasting damages—whether they are guilty or not.
Short term repercussions include:
- Social ostracization after being labeled an abuser or predator
- Losing your placement in clubs or on sports teams
- Poor grades due to stress or distraction
- Suspension, with the potential loss of credits, the semester, or the entire academic year
- Expulsion, which can affect your ability to re-enroll in another high-quality school
These repercussions are just in the short term. The effects of sexual harassment allegations or discipline extend well beyond your current academic year. In the long term, you may also face:
- Difficulty finishing high school, especially if you are expelled
- Lost collegiate opportunities, with reputable schools hesitant to admit someone with a tarnished reputation
- A delayed career, or diminished career prospects
No one should have their life and future ruined by false allegations. Having an experienced attorney-advisor like Joseph D. Lento on your side is vital.
What to Do When You've Been Accused of Sexual Harassment
If you have been accused of sexual harassment at school, or you're the parent of a student being accused, it's important to respond in a way that protects your rights and ensures a positive outcome. Don't wait—follow these steps immediately:
- Hire an experienced attorney-advisor. Although school disciplinary hearings are not courts of law, you still need professional advice if you want to protect your rights and future
- Do not respond to the school's charge without preparation (preferably under the guidance of an attorney-advisor). It's tempting to fire back an emotional or angry response, but this could hurt you in the long run
- Read your school handbook, paying careful attention to any stated definition of sexual misconduct and/or harassment. Compare your situation to their explanation to see if it can actually be considered sexual harassment. Also, be sure to review your school's disciplinary process, so you know what to expect
- Write down anything you can remember about the time of the alleged incident. Your memory will fade quickly, so it's important to log everything while it's fresh. The more details, the better
- Do not initiate contact or respond to contact from your accuser. All communication should be through your attorney-advisor or during official meetings with witnesses
- Do not discuss the case with anyone besides your attorney-advisor, as your words can come back to haunt you
All students have the right to due process, but can you really trust your school to protect your rights in sexual harassment cases? With so much at stake, the answer is certainly no. It's imperative that you understand your school's code of conduct and disciplinary process. An attorney-advisor can help.
The Role of an Attorney-Advisor
If school disciplinary hearings aren't civil or criminal cases in a court of law, why hire a lawyer? You may not be facing criminal or civil legal charges, but school-mandated disciplinary action can still negatively impact your education and future career. A lawyer can act as your advisor and advocate by:
- Reading and understanding your school policies and procedures
- Reviewing the case and gathering evidence, including witness statements, social media posts, and more
- Preparing a strong defense with school policies and case facts in mind
- Ensuring the school follows their own disciplinary rules as well as Title IX guidelines (if applicable) with fairness to both parties
- Advising on the appropriate actions and responses to give the best chance of a favorable outcome
- Appealing decisions that are not in your favor
The pain and suffering you experience after a sexual misconduct allegation can make it difficult to defend yourself or proceed appropriately. A lawyer can guide you every step of the way and ensure a greater chance of a positive outcome.
The Lento Law Firm Will Safeguard Your Future
Sexual misconduct allegations do not have to ruin your life. Attorney-Advisor Joseph D. Lento has defended hundreds of students in sexual harassment and Title IX cases across the country, giving him unparalleled experience in protecting students' rights. When it comes to serious disciplinary violations like sexual harassment, don't risk your education or your future. Hire a professional to advocate for you.
Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-555-3686, or use the online form, for a consultation today.