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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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Put it in writing
All school districts should have written policies outlining the grievance procedures for sexual harassment. According to the OCR's guidelines, schools are required to adopt and publish grievance procedures providing for prompt resolution of sex discrimination complaints, including those stemming from sexual harassment. This policy is based on Title IX, the 1972 U.S. education code amendment that prohibits schools that receive federal funding from sexual discrimination. Although some recent court cases have supported the OCR's interpretation of Title IX to include sexual harassment, not all federal courts agree. Joe Purcell, a driver for Wake County Public Schools in Raleigh, N.C., says a message was circulated among the drivers stating that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. He says, though, that the drivers haven't had any formal training. And although he says he hasn't observed sexual harassment on his bus, he nevertheless educates his elementary-age riders. "I say, 'You may compliment a girl, but don't force the issue.'"

Focus on drivers, too
School bus operators also need to be wary of driver-to-student harassment. Certainly, driver harassment of students occurs, but in many cases, a driver's conduct has been misconstrued. "I believe there is a gray area out there where touchy-feely people get lumped in, and their behavior may or may not be sexual harassment," says James Southern, transportation director at Tacoma (Wash.) School District #10. "Through lack of education, they may not interpret what they're doing as sexual harassment, whether it is or not." Identifying sexual harassment can be difficult because it can be a matter of "his word vs. hers," Southern says. For example, a female student told her parents that a driver touched her inappropriately on the shoulder. The driver was suspended from driving for three months, although an investigation later cleared him, Southern says. To address the issue, Southern's department offers drivers an annual two-hour sexual harassment class. Taught by the district's diversity compliance officer, the class provides an overview of what sexual harassment is and how employees can respond appropriately to it. Although cases in which students harass drivers are less common than the converse, they do occur, and transportation managers need to be ready to respond appropriately. "One of the worst cases I've ever heard about is a kid calling a driver a sexist pig and a lesbian," says Andrew Waite, a driver for Ventura County (Calif.) School District. According to Waite, the driver had been trying to discipline the child. He says offending students are required to fill out a report that is given to their parents. Lamar Atkins, former transportation director and currently the district administrator and director of attendant services for Sumter (S.C.) School District, says the two-district county has seen and tried cases, including a male-to-male harassment incident and an alleged driver-to-student case. "Many families in South Carolina would like to think that something like this doesn't happen in their town, but it does," Atkins says. "There is no Smalltown U.S.A."

Courts still uncertain about negligence issue
As most any teenager knows, sexual harassment is prevalent at school and on the school bus. According to a 1993 study by pollster Louis Harris, 81 percent of 1,600 eighth- through eleventh-graders have experienced sexual harassment. Of that figure, more than a quarter experienced such incidents on the school bus. According to the U.S. Department of Education, dozens of school districts are being investigated for student-to-student sexual harassment. In some cases, school districts have been successfully sued for failing to stem peer sexual harassment. A jury in Antioch, Calif., ordered a school district to pay $500,000 to a sixth-grade girl who said she was harassed the entire school year. Last fall, however, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a case brought by Debbie Rowinsky and her two daughters against the Bryan (Texas) Independent School District. Rowinsky says school officials ignored complaints that her daughters were verbally and physically harassed on the school bus during the 1992-93 school year. Rowinsky took the case to the high court after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit ruled that sexual harassment does not violate Title IX, the federal education amendment that prohibits gender discrimination. "The mere existence of sexual harassment [at school] does not necessarily constitute sexual discrimination," wrote Judge Jerry Smith.

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