Discriminatory and Sexual Harassment

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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
  • Sex
  • 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

Sexual Harassment in Washington K-12 Public Schools

Title IX Sexual Harassment Rules

On August 14, 2020, U.S. Department of Education rules implementing Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (Title IX) went into effect. These new rules represent a significant shift in federal standards for how schools respond to sexual harassment. Specifically, compared to former federal guidance on sexual harassment, the new rules include three major changes: the rules include a new definition of sexual harassment, change the standard for schools to respond to sexual harassment to “deliberate indifference,” and require schools to implement a new, prescriptive complaint process.

However, Washington law also specifies standards for how schools respond to sexual harassment, so Washington school districts may not rely on the Title IX rules alone to guide their response to sexual harassment. Therefore, Washington school districts will need to continue to comply with state law while implementing the new Title IX rules. See the guidance below on responding to sexual harassment in Washington K–12 public schools.

Title IX Rules Guidance

The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has provided the below guidance to assist schools in understanding the requirements and standards in the new Title IX rules. Note that this guidance does not include references to state law, so complying with these resources alone will not meet Washington law requirements.

Sexual Harassment Response Guidance

Discriminatory Harassment

Schools must take steps to protect students from discriminatory harassment. Discriminatory harassment occurs when conduct is:

  1. Based on a student’s protected class, AND
  2. 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.

Responding to Discriminatory Harassment

When a school knows or reasonably should know of possible discriminatory harassment, it must take prompt and appropriate steps to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.

A school can receive notice of harassment in many different ways. In some situations, harassment may be in plain sight, a student may have reported behavior to a teacher or other employee, or an employee may have witnessed the harassment. The school may also receive notice about harassment in an indirect manner, from sources such as a community member, social networking sites, or the media. In other cases, the pervasiveness of harassment may be widespread, openly practiced, or well-known among students or employees.

Specific steps in an investigation will vary depending upon the nature of the allegations, the source of the complaint, the age of the student(s) involved, the size and administrative structure of the school, and other factors. However, in all cases the inquiry must be prompt, thorough, and impartial.

If an investigation reveals that harassment created a hostile environment, the school must then take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent its recurrence, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.

Training on Responding to Discriminatory Harassment and Bias in School

Some of the most common questions we hear from educators and parents are about what a school should be doing to address discrimination and bias that are raised in the school community or in a harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) complaint. When does a HIB incident or complaint indicate discrimination may be occurring, and what is your school district’s legal obligation to respond? This webinar, recorded in November 2022, explains how school districts must respond to discriminatory harassment and shares local processes, tools, and best practices that can be used to prevent and respond to bias and discriminatory harassment.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between bullying and discriminatory harassment?

Harassing behavior may be covered under a school district's Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) policy and procedure. However, if the behavior is based on a student's protected class, the school district should respond using both the HIB policy and procedure, and the nondiscrimination (or sexual harassment) policy and procedure. While both procedures outline complaint and investigation requirements, the nondiscrimination and sexual harassment procedure requires a district-level response.

The label used to describe an incident (e.g., bullying, hazing, teasing) does not determine how a school is obligated to respond. Rather, the nature of the conduct itself must be assessed for civil rights implications. Ultimately, the school or school district is responsible for recognizing when behavior is discriminatory harassment.

WAC 392-190-059 requires schools to notify the school district's civil rights compliance coordinator when (1) a HIB complaint indicates possible discriminatory harassment, or (2) during a HIB investigation, the school becomes aware of potential discrimination.

What steps should a school put in place to protect students during an investigation?

It may be necessary for the school to take interim measures to protect staff or students during an investigation. What interim measures are appropriate will depend on the specific situation but may include the following examples:

  • Measures to avoid contact between involved students while at school or on the bus
  • Staff escorts between classes or additional staff supervision in areas of the school
  • Access to counseling services
  • Academic accommodations (e.g., rescheduling exams and assignments) or support services, such as tutoring
  • Excusing absences
  • For impacted employees, changes in work schedule or job assignment
What are appropriate steps to end harassment and address a hostile environment?

If an investigation reveals that discriminatory harassment has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring.

Appropriate steps to end harassment and address a hostile environment will depend on the specific situation but may include the following examples:

  • Measures to avoid contact between involved students while at school, at school activities, or on the bus. However, any separation of the targeted student from an alleged harasser should be designed to minimize the burden on the target's educational program (e.g., not requiring the target to change their class schedule).
  • Providing counseling or academic support services for the targeted student. It may also be appropriate to allow the targeted student to make up tests or assignments.
  • Discipline or training for the alleged harasser.
  • Depending on the extent of the harassment, the school may need to provide training or other interventions not only for the students involved, but for the larger school community to ensure that all students, families, and staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond. Issues of discriminatory harassment are often systemic, and it may be appropriate for a school district to reevaluate their nondiscrimination and sexual harassment policies and procedures, provide additional staff training, and clearly communicate that the school district does not tolerate harassment and will be responsive to any student who reports harassment.
What are appropriate steps to prevent harassment from recurring?

If an investigation reveals that discriminatory harassment has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment and its effects, and prevent the harassment from recurring.

Appropriate steps to prevent harassment from recurring will depend on the specific situation but may include the following examples:

  • Ensure the alleged harasser and other involved students understand they are not allowed to retaliate against the targeted student or anyone who participated in the investigation
  • Ensure that targeted students and their families know how to report any subsequent problems
  • Conduct follow-up inquiries to see if there have been any new incidents or any instances of retaliation, and respond promptly and appropriately to address continuing or new problems
What if the harassing conduct occurred off campus?

Even if discriminatory or sexual harassment—including sexual violence—occurred off campus, the school district should still investigate to determine whether the conduct occurred in the context of an education program or activity or had continuing effects on the student at school.

If the harassment took place in the context of an education program or activity of the school, the school district must investigate the complaint as it would for on-campus behavior. Even if the misconduct did not occur in the context of an education program or activity, the school district must still consider the effects of off-campus misconduct when evaluating whether there is a hostile environment on campus. Because students often experience the continuing effects of off-campus discriminatory or sexual harassment while at school, the school district will need to address that hostile environment in the same manner in which it would address a hostile environment created by on-campus misconduct.

What if the student or parent does not file a formal complaint?

A school district is responsible for investigating and addressing discriminatory and sexual harassment about which it knows or reasonably should have known. This is a school district's responsibility regardless of whether a student has complained, asked the school to take action, or identified conduct as a form of discrimination.

Even when the student does not want the school to take action, the school is still responsible for assessing possible impacts to other students or staff. To the extent possible, the school should work to maintain student confidentiality.

Relevant Laws & Policy

Washington Law & Policy

Federal policy & Guidance

Resources & Support