In today’s world, accusations are serious business. While the law maintains a strict policy of “innocent until proven guilty”, we are seeing accusations of all sorts play out in a public court, like in media, before the case can even be even brought to a court of law.
This is particularly true in cases of sexual harassment in educational settings. Whether at an elementary, middle, or high school or a college or university, whether the institution is public or private, it is common for a party to accuse someone of sexual assault and the institution places the alleged offender on administrative leave before any legal action can begin. In many cases, legal charges may not even be brought – and yet, the damage to the accused’s reputation and career is likely already complete.
At Sexual Harassment Attorney, we are here to defend teachers and professors who are accused of sexual harassment. We work with clients throughout the State of California, so we understand the intricacies of state and federal laws, as well as the rules and processes within public and private educational institutions.
We provide this information below as an overview for teachers and professors who are accused of sexual harassment, including an explanation for what it is and common defenses against it. If you are accused of sexual harassment, or believe it is possible, seek legal counsel. The below sections are informational in nature, not intended as legal advice; only a lawyer with professional expertise in this field should provide legal advice.
Understanding Sexual Harassment
In order for sexual harassment to be deemed a legal matter, it must have a negative impact on a student’s ability to take part in or benefit from the school or educational program by turning such an environment into a hostile environment. In such an environment, the student does not feel safe at school or is limited in his or her own learning.
It is the creation of such a hostile environment that makes it difficult to determine specifically which actions or behaviors can be deemed sexual harassment in the eyes of the law. For instance, a if a teacher is lauding his or her power over a student, making requests for sexual favors or otherwise talking in an inappropriate way, that can certainly lead to a hostile environment for the student(s) that are subject to the behavior. But, a teacher may express himself or herself through hugs or touching a student’s arms – even though the teacher may not intend this in a sexual nature, the student may feel uncomfortable in the situation, which can result in an environment that is hostile, offensive, or otherwise inconducive to learning.
Sexual harassment refers to any unwelcome conduct that has an air of sexuality. This includes sexual advances, sexual favor requests, and other conduct that is sexual in nature, including verbal, non-verbal, and physical conduct.
Sexual harassment usually involves two parties: the person acting in a sexual way towards a person who neither wants nor welcomes that behavior.
Federal and California Laws Against Sexual Harassment
Any school, whether public or private, that receives any funding from the federal government is required to comply with Title IX. Ensconced in the Education Amendments of 1972, Title IX is considered a law that protects civil rights, as it makes illegal any discrimination based on sex or gender in educational programs and activities.
Sexual harassment is included in such illegal discrimination and can include two types of sexual harassment in an educational setting: student-on-student sexual harassment and employee-on-student sexual harassment.
California’s Education Code has a section known as the Sex Equity in Education Act. This further prohibits sexual harassment, making such behavior illegal in any academic, athletics, research, extracurricular, or financial aid program that receives money from the state, and can include both private and public programs
False Accusations of Sexual Harassment
Sometimes sexual harassment accusations are not true. There are various reasons you may be falsely accused of sexual harassment, and many have nothing to do with sexual harassment.
In fact, teachers and professors have become acutely aware of the chance that a student could bring sexual harassment accusations as revenge or retaliation for a poor grade. Students have false accused teachers and professors of such illegal behavior simply because he or she may have felt embarrassed by a teacher’s answer to their question or because the teacher called on the student when he or she was not prepared. In more extreme cases, a group of students may gang up on a teacher, knowing that their voices are often heard more quickly than should a teacher make a complaint.
Such accusations aren’t limited to a traditional classroom: coaches and physical education teachers are vulnerable to allegations simply because they may be trying to demonstrate a better way to make a play or talking frankly about a team’s performance.
Steps Teachers and Professors Can Take When Accused of Sexual Harassment
If you are accused of sexual harassment, or believe you may be, you can take a number of actions to further prevent any damage:
- Watch what you say. Students and others can easily misconstrue anything you say, whether it’s the language you used, the tone you spoke with, or nonverbal cues such as body language, eyes, etc. Anything you say to anyone – whether a student or accuser, an employer, a colleague – could be brought against you in case of legal action.
- Seek legal counsel. Even if accusations haven’t been brought against you, speaking with a lawyer can help provide specific actions to take for your scenario.
- Talk with your union. If you are employed in a public-school district in California, you may be part of a teachers’ labor organization. They can provide more specific insight into your school district’s rules and policies, as well as common-sense ideas on what you may expect, based on prior cases of similar note. Any collective bargaining agreement that applies may also offer some protection.
- Keep notes. As soon as you have been accused, or suspect you will be, you should start keeping notes on what occurred. These notes can be as informal as you need to get them done – written down in your phone, in a computer document, or inside a personal notebook. The notes should include any run-ins with people involved, what was said, the time and place, etc. Importantly, the notes should be kept in a way or place that only you can access them. You should be prepared to share these notes once you obtain a lawyer.
- Avoid privacy. If a student, colleague, or other party comes to speak with you privately in your office, move into a public area, like the hallway or outside of your door. This can indicate that you are aware of your surroundings – anything that occurs in a private setting with only two people present can result in a he-said-she-said situation in court.
- Pay attention to the ways you communicate. Face-to-face communication should be clear and concise. Importantly, though, you also need to pay attention to your online and phone conversations.
- Limit your relationships to official school activities. You should always maintain a professional association with students – as in class or at school-sanctioned activities. Meeting them off-campus or in a private place may provide more impetus in an accusation.
- Consider your public persona. Because of your status as a teacher, it is possible that area news outlets may follow your case. You may, along with your union and lawyer, develop a strategy for how to handle such media scrutiny.
- When in doubt, don’t. Pay attention to your own gut feelings – if some situation or person feels untrustworthy, keep your distance as much as possible.
These tips are also helpful for people who aren’t accused of sexual harassment.
Proving a Sexual Harassment Charge
It is one thing for a party to accuse you of sexual harassment and another, much more difficult thing for the party to win a conviction against you.
The alleged victim who brings action against you is known in court as the prosecuting side. The prosecution attorney must prove every single legal element of a sexual accusation charge.
The required parts of a sexual harassment accusation usually include:
- That the alleged victim was part of a protected class – in this case, a student who is protected by Title XI.
- That the alleged victim was subject to your alleged unwelcome harassment because of his or her sex or gender.
- That the alleged harassment towards the victim created a hostile environment, even if it was not intentional. (This can mean that a one-off case or basic teasing over time may not contribute to a hostile environment.)
Common Defenses Against Sexual Harassment
If your sexual harassment accusation is going to be heard in a court of law, your attorney will decide on the best strategy for your defense. Your defense can include a variety of legal strategies, some well-known and others more particular.
Importantly, in most defense strategies, the onus of proof rests with the prosecution (the team fighting for the alleged victim). The onus of proof means that they are responsible for proving a claim. Part of your lawyer’s defense strategy may seek to indicate that the plaintiff has not met his or her burden of proof. Your lawyer may use various tools to promote doubt in the truth and trustworthiness of the alleged victim.
Here are some common defenses your attorney may explore in fighting your sexual harassment case:
- Your lawyer may opt for a plea of innocence in your case, especially if it will be particularly difficult for the alleged victim to prove his or her case against you.
- In the State of California, the age of consent is 18. If your accuser is at the age of consent at the time of the alleged incident, it may be harder to prove sexual harassment, especially if your lawyer is able to instill doubt that the alleged victim did, in fact, not welcome the alleged actions or behaviors. Of course, if you are a teacher in an elementary, middle, or high school, the students alleging sexual harassment are likely under the age of consent, which means your lawyer may avoid the topic altogether.
- Victim motivation. Your lawyer may determine that the victim was motivated by some external factor in pursuing such accusations against you. For instance, perhaps the student pursuing these charges is angry at you for a grade or a discussion you held in class or feels you treated him or her unfairly.
- Insanity or mental incapacity (permanent or temporary). In rare instances, you may be able to indicate that you were temporarily or permanently insane or otherwise unable to assess or understand the inappropriate nature of the event in questions. This is a risky angle for defense, as it can be very difficult to obtain, the onus of proof actually rests with the defense lawyer, and a successful verdict for you under this strategy could have signification impact on both your professional and personal life.
Can I Seek Defamation or Other Damages?
Seeking damages for defamation is an option if you are falsely accused of rape or sexual harassment. Defamation is legally defined as damaging the good reputation of a person. It includes both slander (spoken defamation) and libel (written defamation).
Importantly, a charge of sexual harassment is a criminal situation, whereas a charge of defamation is a civil situation, which means it follows a different legal process. If you are wrongly accused of sexual harassment, you may seek monetary compensation as damages from the person(s) who defamed you. You may also seek damages for lost wages or being terminated from your job.
Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to win defamation and damages cases, especially in cases of sexual harassment, as it is difficult to prove beyond dispute that the accusations against you were false. Such legal actions can be even more expensive than others
Sexual harassment accusations – whether true or false – are extremely serious business that can have long-term negative repercussions on your career and reputation, both professional and personal. Contact Sexual Harassment Attorney today at 800-905-1856 to learn how we can aid in your defense.