Colleges Grapple With Sexual Harassment Policies

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When it comes to teaching students about sexual harassment, many of the nation's colleges and universities could use some extra help in getting the point across.

"(The information) goes in one ear and out the other," said Shari Julian, a University of Texas at Arlington faculty member and certified sexual harassment expert. "I've heard students laugh about (it at orientation)."

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Latifa Lyles, vice president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), said schools are "clearly not" doing enough to address the issue.

"The education is out there," Lyles said. "It's up to the universities at this point."

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) published a 72-page report in 2005 about sexual harassment at colleges and universities, which defines sexual harassment as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior, which interferes with your life." The study showed that nearly two-thirds of college students experience some type of sexual harassment.

School administrators acknowledge there is a problem, but they need to establish harsher penalties for offenders, Lyles said.

"If school officials are not going to take action on these issues, the perpetrators will continue to harass," Lyles said. "I know a lot of schools have taken action, like emergency call boxes, hotlines. They just need to take it a step further."

"Just like with employers, you have to communicate to the students the policy," added William Anthony, a Florida State University professor who has testified in more than 40 sexual harassment cases for plaintiffs and defendants. "That's the key … then the students feel more empowered to make a complaint."

Sexual harassment is touched upon during freshman orientation, but this often brief introduction may not prepare students for handling certain situations they might not have encountered in high school.

"Students are not emotionally ready," Julian said. "It's underestimating on the part of the parent and student to make the leap from high school to college. There aren't that many high school students that have their own pad. Then you go to college, and you have no constraints on you whatsoever."

Julian added that "there is a very small percentage of people" that don't have some sense of a definition of sexual harassment, but many students are unfamiliar with the terminology, especially when it comes to understanding the difference between joking and harassment.

Some school officials and experts point out that one difficulty is defining sexual harassment.

"What might be sexual harassment to one person might not be to another," Anthony said. "The key is to make people aware."

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Michael Smallis, the deputy to the vice president in the division of student affairs at the City College of New York (CCNY), agreed that many students might not recognize when they are harassing or being harassed. He said school officials could always do more to address the matter, but from his experiences, they are usually successful at reconciling problems.

"Most of the cases in my career have been misunderstandings," Smallis said. "When you sit two students down and you mediate, that's where I find the most success. When both students talk it out, then they learn from their mistakes."

Smallis said an increasing number of students are reporting incidents of sexual harassment. Students generally "don't have a problem coming forward with a complaint because they know the resources," he said. "They always feel comfortable to tell one person."

Still, the AAUW study found that less than 10 percent of students who feel they have been sexually harassed tell a college or university employee.

City College students are given an 11-page sexual harassment packet at freshman orientation, which includes procedures for reporting incidents of harassment and places they can go to make these complaints.

"I feel at this point with our policy, committees, resources in student affairs … we make a very good effort to make the students aware," Smallis said.

City College hopes to incorporate another aspect to sexual harassment training for freshman — a 25-question quiz that students would use to discuss sexual harassment in their freshman seminars, Smallis said.

"After they take the quiz, it's funny how people start to say, 'Wow, I didn't realize what I was doing was sexual harassment,'" Smallis said.

"Then the discussion group would talk about it. If we can implement this program, it's one more way to make our students and community aware."

Dora Wu, 20, who is taking summer classes at City College, said she was never directed toward any resources there or at her other school, Pratt Institute. She thinks it's important for schools to better communicate with their students about sexual harassment.

"That kind of situation never really applied to me," Wu said. But, "at least point which way you're going to find help if you come in contact with that kind of situation."

Florida State University provides students with information about sexual harassment at freshman orientation, as well as a toll free number students can call to make anonymous complaints. Other schools possess similar resources. Stanford University students can seek help at the Sexual Harassment Policy Office or talk to consultants at a local church or medical center. These courses are mandatory for teachers at many colleges and universities.

But while the resources might be there, the resolve to make a complaint can also be complicated by fear of retaliation.

"(Students) are afraid," Julian said. "You're putting yourself out there. If someone accuses a popular student-athlete, who has to suffer? Not the athlete, the complainer."

She said schools "could make it easier and more comfortable" to report an incident by encouraging students to use campus resources on a regular basis.

"We should make it more the norm that students should go there, not just when they're in a crisis," Julian said.

There's also "a sense of 'I'm an adult. I don't need to go running to people,'" she added. "There's the fear of looking like you're less than everyone else, like you're not an adult, not in charge of yourself."

Whatever the solution, experts agree that educating students is the first step toward preventing sexual harassment.

"We need to educate," Smallis said. "I think that's the trend across the country."

There's not one magic (answer)," Lyles added. "But if there were very strict rules and consequences…but they're just not happening."

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