Civil rights laws prohibit discrimination and discriminatory harassment in K-12 public schools. A "protected class" is a group of people who share common characteristics and are protected from discrimination and harassment under federal and state law.
These groups are protected classes under Washington state law:
- Race and color
- National origin
- Religion and creed
- Sexual orientation
- Gender identity and gender expression
- Disability and the use of a trained dog guide or service animal
- Honorably discharged veteran or military status
This information sheet outlines students' rights to be free from discriminatory harassment, including sexual harassment, at school.
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Schools must take steps to protect students from discriminatory harassment. Discriminatory harassment occurs when conduct is:
- Based on a student’s protected class, AND
- Serious enough to create a hostile environment.
Harassment creates a hostile environment when the conduct is so severe, pervasive, or persistent that it limits a student’s ability to participate in, or benefit from, the school’s services, activities, or opportunities. A hostile environment could impact a student’s school life in many ways. Physical illness, anxiety about going to school, or a decline in grades or attendance could signal a hostile environment.
Harassing conduct may take many forms, including verbal acts and name-calling; graphic and written statements, which may include use of cell phones or the internet; or other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating. Harassment does not have to include intent to harm, be directed at a specific target, or involve repeated incidents.
Sexual Harassment & Sexual Violence
Sexual harassment is a form of discriminatory harassment. It is unwelcome behavior or communication that is sexual in nature and
- Leads the student to believe they must submit to the unwelcome sexual conduct or communication to gain something in return (for example, a grade or a place on a sports team), OR
- The conduct substantially interferes with a student’s educational performance or creates a hostile environment.
Examples of sexual harassment could include:
- Pressuring a person for sexual favors
- Unwelcome touching of a sexual nature
- Distributing sexually explicit texts, emails, or pictures
- Making sexual jokes, rumors, or suggestive remarks
- Physical violence, including rape and sexual assault
Any student or school employee can be the target of sexual harassment, regardless of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
While schools are required to take action if students report they are being bullied, civil rights laws give students additional protections against discriminatory harassment. Even when student misconduct falls under a school’s harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) policy, the behavior could also be discriminatory harassment if based on a student’s protected class.
Often, schools must take extra steps to protect students from this type of harassment, even if the behavior is also covered by the school’s anti-bullying or HIB policy. School staff must investigate possible discriminatory harassment, as soon as they know or reasonably should know about it, even if a parent or student does not file a formal complaint.
If an investigation reveals that bullying was based on a student’s protected class and created a hostile environment, staff must act quickly to stop the behavior and put an end to the hostile environment. The school must make sure that the harassment does not happen again.
School Responses to Discriminatory Harassment
School staff must investigate possible discriminatory harassment—as soon as they know or reasonably should know—even if a parent or student does not file a complaint or ask the school to get involved. This investigation must be thorough, fair, and impartial. School staff also need to take steps to protect students when necessary, even before any investigation is complete.
If an investigation reveals that harassing conduct created a hostile environment, staff must act quickly to stop the behavior and put an end to the hostile environment.
The school must:
- Address any effects discriminatory harassment had on the student at school, AND
- Make sure that harassing conduct does not happen again.
The school must protect students and parents from retaliation by other students or school employees because they communicated concerns about discriminatory harassment, filed a complaint, or participated in an investigation.
Questions, Concerns, Complaints
A discussion with your school principal, or civil rights coordinator at the school district, is often the best first step to address your concerns or disagreements about discrimination and work toward a solution. Share what happened and let the principal or coordinator know what they can do to help resolve the problem.
If you cannot resolve the concern or disagreement this way, you can file a complaint.