I teach physics at a community college in California. A series of female students have told me about sexual harassment by the same tenured male math instructor. Two such incidents went like this.

one incident:

"Professor, I'm having trouble with my homework. Could you give me some help?"

"Sure, let's go have drinks and talk about it."

another incident:

"Professor, can I come to your office hours for help?"

"Sure. You know, my office is soundproof."

I reported the problem to the vice president who handles Title IX. She told me she needed the students to file formal complaints. In one of these incidents, the student was still enrolled in the guy's class. The VP said they could transfer her to another math class to protect her from retribution. I gave the students this information and suggested that they file complaints. A year later, it turns out that they haven't.

I suspect that almost no students at my school know how to go about reporting sexual harassment by a professor, and that almost none know that any measures could be taken to prevent retribution. My school is about to institute a mandatory online orientation, which will cover sexual harassment, but it treats sexual harassment as a general phenomenon and doesn't deal with any of the specific concerns, such as retribution, that arise when it's teacher-on-student harassment. I tried to convince the VP that we should do better outreach on this specific type of sexual harassment, e.g., with posters, including information about how students can be shielded against retribution. This seemed to make her very uncomfortable. I suspect that such a thing would upset interest groups such as the teachers' union.

A related aspect of the problem is that this is a community college, and it's a commuter school, so many students have weak ties to the institution and do not think of themselves primarily as students. The psychology is probably very different from what you see at elite four-year schools where you see this kind of thing.

How do schools create an environment in which students can and do report teacher-student sexual harassment? Are there best practices at other schools (possibly schools similar to mine) that should be emulated?

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    A couple of years ago universities in Italy set up offices specifically dedicated to the cases of sexual harassment or moral abuses. To avoid conflicts and ease the filing of complains, counsellors are chosen among external resources and not from the university staff. Students have been generally informed of this through email. A number of universities around Italy also advertised the initiative through local newspapers. A few years ago I was instead in a government institute in the US and there were posters along the corridors advertising a counselling service for this kind of problems. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 15 '15 at 9:34
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    Does your college have a ombuds office? Seems like they would be well placed to help inform students who are victims of harassment of their options, and people like yourself who become aware of a problem can refer students to them. – ff524 Sep 17 '15 at 7:07
  • @ff524: Interesting suggestion. It appears from a web search that we don't have one. – user1482 Sep 20 '15 at 3:15
  • You can file a Title IX complaint with the Office for Civil Rights on behalf of the students. Starting point: www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/howto.html. – aparente001 Dec 9 '15 at 16:18
  • How is "Sure, let's go have drinks and talk about it." a harassment of any kind?! For that matter, the other response also!? – Maciej Oct 31 '17 at 9:09

I refer you to the Student Conduct Administration & Title IX: Gold Standard Practices for Resolution of Allegations of Sexual Misconduct on College Campuses report from the Association for Student Conduct Administration. While this report is specifically about responding to complaints about student-on-student sexual harassment, many of the "best practices" described there apply more generally.

Some specifics from that document:

  • To better understand the climate on your campus, there is a list of "Questions to Ask Your Campus" on page 19 of the document mentioned above. These questions may help you identify the problems and a way forward for your specific college. (There is no one-size-fits all resolution to this problem.)

  • Find out if it is possible (e.g. for your Office of Institutional Research, if you have one) to conduct campus-wide climate surveys to understand whether existing efforts to inform students of sexual harassment policies and procedures are effective. If (as you suspect) they are not, this survey will serve as a baseline against which to judge the effectiveness of changes in how you present and disseminate these policies.

  • How comprehensible are your policies to your student body? Would your students feel the need to involve a attorney or a parent in order to understand the policies and procedures related to filing a sexual harassment claim?

  • Make it easy to report sexual harassment. A campus should have several avenues through which students can report (phone, in-person, email, and online form, for example).

    To reduce the barrier to making a "formal complaint," make the student's first interaction as simple as possible:

    For example, if the first conversation includes something like, “You’re not going to want to go before a hearing board of three older faculty members that you might later have as instructors and discuss intimate details of your sex life,” that student is not likely to file a formal complaint.

  • Help students understand that even if they are not prepared to make a formal complaint, they can still get some relief from the situation (with "supportive measures" as they are known in Title IX). For example, in your scenario, the student should be allowed to change classes (and she should understand that she can transfer to another class) even if she is not ready to proceed with a formal complaint.

  • According to the April 2014 Q&A Guidance on Title IX from the OCR, the school's written Title IX grievance procedures should explicitly include "sources of counseling, advocacy, and support" for students. Does your school's policies include these? Are they adequate?

Another useful document is How to Protect Students from Sexual Harassment: A Primer for Schools, from the National Women's Law Center.

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  • This is very helpful, thanks. For example, in your scenario, the student should be allowed to change classes (and she should understand that she can transfer to another class) even if she is not ready to proceed with a formal complaint. This is certainly not being offered to our students. The ability to transfer is not being publicized, and is being offered only as a sort of trade, in return for a formal complaint by the student. – user1482 Sep 21 '15 at 4:01
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    We are also definitely not doing what the National Women's Law Center document suggests here: Once your school has notice of possible sexual harassment of students –– whether carried out by employees, other students, or third parties –– you should take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred, regardless of whether the student who was harassed decides to file a formal complaint. Nothing is being done unless the student takes the initiative to make a formal complaint. – user1482 Sep 21 '15 at 4:07

Put up a modern-day "complaint box" online for anonymous but moderated complaints. (You can delete anything that's spam.)

Display the collected results on the site.

The site should also explain students' rights and colleges' legal obligations, with links.

Include instructions for making a formal complaint.

Put flyers on bulletin boards to direct students to the site.

Your target audience is the whole student body at your community college.

You can pay $10 extra per year for privacy on the url, so that it cannot be traced to you.

Students will become indignant when they see how widespread the problem is. This will help them gain courage.

The administrator must be forced into action by student activism.

Find some women's organizations on campus to ally with. They can help get the word out about the site.

Don't tell anyone you are the creator and the maintainer of the site.

Compare your college's policy and practice with those of a sampling of other community colleges. Here's a randomly chosen example: http://www.mc3.edu/about-us/misconduct

This reading will help you get a clearer idea of what needs to happen (form a task force? define a policy? designate an administrator to receive complaints? etc.).

Once there are some effective anonymous complaints on the site, and you have a clear set of demands, it's time to create a petition. You can do this with a google form.

Ideally the petition would be launched by a campus organization, not by you as an individual. But you can do any or all of the legwork. You can go with the organization's representatives to present the petition and signatures to a top banana.

Include some quotes from the Clarence Thomas - Anita Hill story. You've got to get people fired up!


After reading How to Protect Students from Sexual Harassment: A Primer for Schools (pdf), from the National Women's Law Center (mentioned at the end of the answer written by @ff524 -- thank you!), I now think you may be able to use this document to pressure your college to do more than it has been doing. Here are some excerpts:

In addition to but not in lieu of a formal grievance procedure, you may want to facilitate informal actions in less serious cases of sexual harassment by providing a mediation process or by speaking directly to the accused harasser. Remember, however, that your obligation is to do what is necessary to stop the harassment, prevent its recurrence and effectively address its impact on the victim; if informal steps are insufficient to resolve the problem, you must take additional action.

Posters about the [anti-discrimination] policy and sexual harassment should be placed in hallways, locker rooms, classrooms, administrators’ offices, student activity areas, or other public places.

Once your school has notice of possible sexual harassment of students –– whether carried out by employees, other students, or third parties –– you should take immediate and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred, regardless of whether the student who was harassed decides to file a formal complaint.

A student who has been targeted by harassment should not have not to change his/her activities or move out of his/her classes in order to avoid further harassment. Follow up with the student to make certain the harassment has stopped and that no retaliation has occurred.

[To ensure that its anti-discrimination policy is effective, the school might conduct a survey of students, teachers, staff and parents.]

A description or summary of the policy, with names of persons to contact for more information, should be included in all major school publications such as handbooks, course catalogs, or orientation materials.

If you feel you've hit a brick wall with the person in charge of implementing the school's anti-discrimination policy, it might be time for a petition, built around the NWLC document, and a meeting with a higher college authority.

I hope you can find a couple of allies. I get the impression your college could do with some sort of oversight committee of teachers, students and parents.

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    The administrator must be forced into action by student activism. I think you may have misunderstood the problem. It's not that the administration is ignoring student complaints; it's that the students are not actually making any actionable complaints, and the administration cannot do much on hearsay. Your approach seems to be to generate more hearsay; I'm not sure how that will help, and there are a LOT of problems with this suggestion. – ff524 Sep 20 '15 at 16:27
  • @ff524 - It's all about building a groundswell. A person who has been subjected to sexual harassment but is not pursuing a formal complaint is likely to feel less hesitant to come forward if she feels (a) motivated, noticing that other people are getting hurt too, and (b) supported. / Can you be specific about what harm my proposal might cause? / Also, I'm interested to hear your ideas about what you think would help. Clearly, the OP is motivated to do something! Let's offer some constructive suggestions for him! – aparente001 Sep 20 '15 at 19:50
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    I agree that constructive suggestions would be good; I feel that dangerous suggestions are worse than no suggestions, which is why I feel a responsibility to point out dangerous answers when I see them. (Even if I don't have a good answer to the question myself.) – ff524 Sep 20 '15 at 19:59
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    Some specific harm: The OP can moderate spam and blatantly racist accusations, for example, but cannot identify bad-faith accusations, and so may end up inadvertently hosting extremely damaging false statements. There's a reason OCR guidelines specifically advise against this in most cases: "a school should be aware of the confidentiality concerns of an accused employee or student. Publicized accusations of sexual harassment, if ultimately found to be false, may nevertheless irreparably damage the reputation of the accused." – ff524 Sep 20 '15 at 20:00
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    Another example of specific harm: If the school decides to sue for defamation or related charges (which they are well within their rights to do), the resulting subpoena will uncover the OP's identity despite the private domain name registration. (Even if they lose the defamation lawsuit, they are almost certainly going to be granted the subpoena to identify the person responsible for the site.) – ff524 Sep 20 '15 at 20:00

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