Teachers harassing students: Exception or the rule?

$25K settlement awarded to student harassed by teachers in Minnesota school

Posted Aug 15, 2009

On August 13, 2009, the Startribune.com reported that a Minnesota school district agreed to pay $25,000 to Alex Merritt after an investigation was conducted by the Minnesota Human Rights commission. The student and his mother filed a complaint with the commission stating that two teachers were subjecting him to anti-gay harassment. One teacher stated in front of the class that, "his fence swings both ways," and that he must be "into older men" after choosing to do a history report on Ben Franklin. The next day, a local news station in Kentucky reported that a $2,500 settlement had been reached in a case where a female student had complained about receiving sexual emails from the school's resource officer. Are these cases rare exceptions? Or do they indicate that professional educators are also regular perpetrators of gendered harassment?

In my research with high school teachers that I published in my book [amazon 0807749532], two of the participants shared similar stories. One teacher talked about how two female students had told her that a male teacher was sexually harassing them. When she reported it to her department head he told her, "yeah, we know, we've spoken to him about it, we see it too." But no administrative action was ever taken against the teacher in question. A second teacher, who identified as a gay man, talked about experiencing such severe anti-gay harassment from his colleagues that he had to go on sick leave and eventually had to change schools. The lack of corrective action taken by his administrators against the perpetrators was a major factor in his choice to leave the school. These are not isolated incidents. In a 2003 study conducted in the Netherlands, Timmerman reported that sexual harassment was a public phenomenon embedded in the culture of the school and that male teachers participated actively in the sexual harassment of female students. Nan Stein has also reported several stories from female students experiencing sexual harassment from their male teachers in her groundbreaking research on sexual harassment in elementary and secondary schools. A Human Rights Watch report [amazon 1564322599], also reported several incidents of students being subjected to harassment by their teachers. One lesbian student stated that a teacher told her, "Well if you weren't a lesbian, you might pass this class," or "If you'd get your head out from between those girls' thighs, maybe you'd pass."

As many teachers are heading back to school and attending in-services and preparing their lessons for the first week of school, many school districts are offering sessions on bullying and harassment, but these usually do not address the deeply embedded cultural beliefs that allow gendered harassment to continue. Educators need to learn to question dominant cultural notions about masculinity and femininity and examine their own beliefs about gender and sexuality. If teachers and administrators value and reproduce heteronormative gender hierarchies of dominant masculinities and submissive femininities then they will validate and perpetuate various forms of gendered harassment. If teachers engage in adolescent "jokes" or try to "look cool" at the expense of some of their students, then clear and prompt action must be taken to show that this behaviour is not endorsed by school.

In Canada there have been several human rights complaints against teachers who have created a hostile environment in their classrooms by making anti-gay (Kempling v. BCCT) or anti-Semitic statements (Ross v. New Brunswick). Provincial human rights tribunals and the Supreme Court of Canada have clearly stated that educators have a responsibility to create a "discrimination-free" learning environment. Unfortunately, only a handful of U.S. states have similar protections. We must take action to revise and update non-discrimination policies to help schools that are moving to create safer spaces for all students. What do you think? Is this a problem in your area? What is being done? Please post a comment here.

For information about how to win a free copy of my book [amazon 0807749532] post a response to this blog post or one of my other entries, then fill out the form on my website: http://lizjmeyer.googlepages.com.



  1. Bochenek, Michael, and A. Widney Brown. 2001. Hatred in the hallways: Violence and discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in U.S. schools. New York: Human Rights Watch.
  2. Kempling v. British Columbia College of Teachers. 2004. B.C.D. Civ.
  3. Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15. 1996. 1 S.C.R. 825.
  4. Stein, Nan. 1995. Sexual harassment in school: The public performance of gendered violence. Harvard Educational Review 65 (2):145-162.
  5. Timmerman, Greetje. 2003. Sexual harassment of adolescents perpetrated by teachers and peers: An exploration of the dynamics of power, culture, and gender in secondary schools. Sex Roles 48 (5-6):231-244.