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August 01, 1997  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Lawsuits Lurk in the Back of the Bus

Teasing, name-calling and playful touching are everyday occurrences on school buses. While most of this may be harmless fun, some of it could be sexual harassment.

by Laurie Wiegler, Associate Editor

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Teasing, name-calling and playful touching are everyday occurrences on school buses. While most of this may be harmless fun, some of it could be sexual harassment. Transportation personnel must know how to differentiate the two and how to handle complaints alleging sexual harassment. In guidelines published in the Federal Register in March, the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) urges school officials to use "judgment and common sense" in determining what is sexual harassment. Certainly, 6-year-old Johnathan Prevette's headline-grabbing kiss of a classmate wouldn't qualify as sexual harassment, but a 14-year-old boy's crude jokes about a female classmate could be. On the school bus, sexual harassment can be especially damaging because the victim cannot easily escape his or her harasser. That's why it's important that drivers be taught how to identify the behavior and to understand the possible effect of the harassment on the victims. According to the OCR, sexual harassment can involve the following:

  • Sexual advances
  • Touching of a sexual nature
  • Graffiti of a sexual nature
  • Displaying sexually explicit drawings
  • Sexual gestures
  • Pressure for sexual favors
  • Touching oneself sexually or talking about one's sexual activity
  • Spreading rumors about or rating other students as to sexual activity or performance (It should be noted that only unwelcome conduct can be classified as sexual harassment.)

    The transportation staff needs to be made aware that sexual harassment can have a devastating effect on its victims. Hopelessness, confusion and even suicidal thoughts can result from sexual harassment, especially if the situation is not addressed.

    Don't ignore complaints
    In dealing with student-to-student sexual harassment, school bus operators should encourage drivers to immediately report any complaints. The worst mistake that a transportation department can make is to ignore a complaint. Most likely, the harassing behavior will only become worse if it's allowed to continue. In addition, the courts have awarded damages to plaintiffs who have proved that school officials failed to act when notified of sexual harassment. "Once we hear about it, we act," says Brian Weisinger, transportation director at Friendswood (Texas) Independent School District. He says his school district has a written policy against sexual harassment, although there haven't been any severe cases in his two years as director. "One of the worst things you can do is hear about it and do nothing," says Ron Evans, transportation supervisor at South Ripley Community Schools in Versailles, Ind. As a former police officer, Evans is especially concerned about possible litigation caused by sexual harassment. "If you got through the court system, you just never know," he says. Patricia Boddy, a training consultant for Boddy Media Group in Des Moines, Iowa, says the transportation manager needs to tell drivers to document the fact that a peer harassment complaint has been lodged. The driver must do whatever his or her district requires and, along with any bus aides, must have a discussion with the transportation manager immediately following the complaint. Then, a thorough and impartial investigation must be conducted. Drivers should provide the identities of possible victims and perpetrators, anyone who may have observed the sexually harassing conduct and everyone mentioned by either the victim or the alleged harasser.

    Learn to recognize cues
    Boddy says there are verbal and non-verbal cues that may indicate a charged situation. "If a student gets on the bus and the bus immediately goes quiet by his or her very presence, then that bus driver might have an indication that something funny is going on," she says. To prevent sexual harassment from becoming an issue on the school bus, there are steps that drivers can take, Boddy says. First and foremost, drivers should take control of their buses at the beginning of the school year. "That means laying out ground rules for how the school bus is going to operate and informing the children of that," Boddy says. "Drivers can also do a lot by learning the students' names. If they know that student's name, that student assumes they have a certain level of accountability."

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