Don't stand so close to me

The Supreme Court ruling to protect school districts from liability in sexual harassment cases leaves students to protect themselves.

Published June 30, 1998 4:44PM (EDT)

One spring day in 1992, Frank Waldrop, a high school social studies teacher in the small Texas community of Lago Vista, stopped by a student's house to drop off a book. According to the student, who was home alone when Waldrop arrived at her house, the 52-year-old teacher leaned forward and kissed her, then fondled her. The student, Alida Star Gebser, was 14 years old at the time. That interlude was the beginning of an affair that lasted six months and ended in the woods when a police officer found the two naked together.

Though Waldrop was fired and went to jail after pleading no contest to attempted sexual assault, Gebser and her mother sued the Lago Vista school district for what happened to her. Their case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which last week upheld, by a vote of 5-4, a lower court's ruling dismissing the case. The justices found that victims of sexual harassment can hold school districts responsible only if an official -- a school administrator -- at the school knew about what was going on and didn't do anything about it. Since Gebser never told anyone about Waldrop and the district didn't discover the relationship, the Lago Vista School District was not held liable.

What happened to Gebser is far from uncommon, according to the American Association of University Women. The AAUW's 1993 national survey, "Hostile Hallways," now considered a definitive report on sexual harassment in the schools, found that one out of four girls and one out of 10 boys have reported being harassed by an adult. "The number of reported cases involving sexual harassment of students in schools confirms that harassment unfortunately is an all too common aspect of the educational experience," wrote Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, representing the Supreme Court's majority opinion.

But educators say the lawsuits stemming from these cases sometimes hit the school districts hard, with settlements reaching the million-dollar mark. Even so, the Supreme Court's decision has angered women's rights advocates and parents and prompted Justice John Paul Stevens, of the dissenting minority opinion, to write that the court was ranking "protection of the school's purse above protection of immature high school students."

Should schools be held financially liable for the teachers they hire? Is it just too difficult to police every teacher-student relationship? Salon spoke with Charol Shakeshaft, who has been researching sexual harassment in schools for 12 years, about the occurrence of sexual advances by teachers, the reasons why students don't come forward and what this decision might mean to future generations of students who are caught as the apple of a lascivious teacher's eye. Shakeshaft is a professor of administration and policy studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

What does the Supreme Court decision mean?

I am dismayed by the decision. It says to the adults in positions of power at the schools that it's better not to know when a teacher abuses a student; it's better not to have a grievance system; it's better to just keep things quiet because if we don't know about the abuse, then we can't be held liable.

But school districts can still be liable if a student reports the abuse to someone at school ...

There is a problem with having kids "report" to a person who is in a position to do something about it -- meaning an administrator. Children by and large don't distinguish between teachers and administrators or between counselors and administrators. When parents and children come to school and tell somebody about a problem, they consider all of us to be the officials. So telling someone about it may not do any good. If that person is not the person who can intervene, the complaint may be lost and the harm to the child will continue.

Also, in my studies of 225 reported abuse cases and through observing teenagers from eight high schools over three years, I've found that only 6 to 7 percent of the students who had been physically sexually abused by a teacher or another adult in school actually told an adult. So most kids don't even tell. There are a lot of signs that you can pick up, but if you're waiting for a child to come forward and say, "This teacher is making me have sex with him or her," it's not likely to happen.

A lawyer for the Lago Vista school district was quoted as saying, "The student here knew precisely what to do to stop this activity." Is it reasonable to expect students to come forward?

It isn't up to the student to make it stop -- it's up to the school to provide a safe environment. Our experience in studying kids is, by and large, they don't know how to make it stop. We have found that when they get into a sexually compromising situation, they don't know what to do or how to make it stop, they have lots of mixed feelings toward the teacher, they care about the teacher, they feel special, they also might feel uncomfortable and they don't always know the policies, particularly if those policies are not published and distributed and talked about.

Having sex with someone under the age of 18 is statutory rape, and it's a crime. But many people say, "If she's 14 and she wanted to have sex then it's OK." A lot of adults say that, a lot of school people say that, so why wouldn't kids believe that it's true, too? So the whole notion that a child would understand that a teacher was violating a law or a school policy is just not the case.

Are sexual harassment policies in school widely known by students?

No. Most of the time what happens is administrators mention the policies, pass out a handbook, but the majority of students don't look at it. Unless someone sits down with students, goes over it and explains it, it is unlikely that students will understand A.) that sexual harassment policy exists and B.) what it is.

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When a student comes forward and reports a teacher for some form of sexual harassment, do the schools typically follow up?

In our studies we found that schools do very little. Even when kids directly report what happened, schools often ignore it, don't investigate, tell the children that they must be making it up, assume that since they knew the teacher -- and didn't think the teacher was that kind of person -- that it must not be true. Schools don't take seriously the complaints, the rumors, even their own eyes. They walk into a classroom, they see a child sitting on a teacher's lap, they see a teacher having lunch with the same child every day, they see the teacher leaving the school day after day with the same child, getting into a car. And they don't say, maybe we want to see what's going on.

But tracking down sexual relations between a student and a teacher can be difficult. Some teachers and students just have close relationships -- taking the form of mentoring relationships, requiring a lot of extra time together ...

We don't know how hard it is because most people don't try to investigate any relationship between teachers and students. What we do know is that there are very few teachers who are wrongly or falsely accused of sexual abuse or harassment. In most cases, a few discussions with the teacher would make clear what kind of relationship the teacher had with the student. Teachers can have close, caring relationships. The question is: Are there boundaries that are being violated?

In your study, under what circumstances did the teachers seduce the students?

There have been incidents of teachers turning out the lights and showing a movie and then taking the students to the back of the room to have sex with them. One kid was a top music student and the band director started spending extra time with her and then began a sexual relationship. There are incidents of teachers taking students into a closet, touching them, taking their clothes off, having intercourse with them while the others are in the classroom; of teachers taking students away from school to get an ice cream cone and then out to a remote area to have sex. Sometimes the students think they love the teacher, sometimes they're terrified of the teacher.

How long does it typically go on before it stops?

A lot of the physical sexual abuse of students -- particularly intercourse -- may go on for years. For older kids, they often last two to three years, for younger kids it may last the year the child is in the class with that teacher. Often it ends because they're caught, or the student tells a friend and the friend tells her parents and the parents report it.

Are girls more likely to be hit on?

Almost all of the sexual abuse comes from male abusers. The largest proportion is to a female, but it's followed closely by male teachers with heterosexual identities having sex with male students.

It appears that Gebser did meet her teacher on different occasions of her own will. Can there be such a thing as a consensual relationship between a 14-year-old and a teacher?

First of all, a 14-year-old is a child and there is never legally a consensual relationship between a child and an adult. So it doesn't matter if the child takes off all of his or her clothes or begs, "Please, please, please, I want to have sex," because having sex with a child is against the law. When you have sex with a child, you have violated their rights -- even if they wanted to have sex, you have taken an unequal power situation and taken advantage of it.

How can schools be more vigilant in tracking down these cases?

First, they need to write their sexual harassment policies and then teach the students, faculty and parents about them. Second, they keep them posted and review them once a year. And third, when schools see things, when they hear rumors, when there's widespread discussion, they need to check into it. They can't just assume that nothing's going on. They can't say, until someone comes to me directly and says this teacher's doing this to me I'm not going to pay attention. They need to ask questions, they need to look out for the students.

In past lawsuits won by sexually harassed students, the damages awarded have been as high as $1 million. Educators are saying that this level of settlement can financially cripple a school district.

First of all, school districts are insured, so the notion that this money comes right out of the operating budget is not accurate. Secondly, if school districts did what they were supposed to, they wouldn't have to worry. Third, financial liability has been the only mechanism that has worked to get schools to change their practices and hand out sexual harassment policies. What the Supreme Court justices are saying is that it's more important to protect the insurance companies from these problems than it is to make sure that sexual abuse of kids by adults stops.

In this case, the teacher was criminally prosecuted. Do you think that's enough protection for students? Sexually harassed or abused students still have the recourse of the criminal justice system.

Yeah, they have the criminal system, but the criminal system doesn't do anything about damages or encourage school districts to do what they're supposed to do. Criminal process may punish an individual abuser but it does not stop the systematic abuse. It has always been against the law for an adult to have sex with a child, but that hasn't stopped it from happening. And that hasn't encouraged school districts to write policies that educate students to complain and follow up on complaints -- only liability seems to do that.

By Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

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