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Preventing Sex-Based Harassment in K-12 Schools

By Nancy J. Cunningham and Shaun M. Sowell | November 2022

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Since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, all 50 states have passed antibullying legislation. As a result, school counselors have often been given responsibility for their school’s bullying prevention programming. The same has not occurred with sex-based harassment despite the legal dictates of Title IX and, more important, the negative impact that sex-based harassment has on individual students and the school environment.

Under Title IX, sex-based harassment is defined in two components: sexual harassment (unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature that can include unwelcome sexual advances; requests for sexual favors; and other verbal, nonverbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature, including sexual violence) and gender-based harassment (unwelcome conduct based on a student’s sex including harassing conduct based on a student’s failure to conform to sex stereotypes).

The power imbalance inherent in sex-based harassment, as in bullying, undermines efforts to create a fair and equitable school environment and results in harm to students who are the victims of such harassment. Research has documented high levels of student sex-based harassment in K–12 schools, and it is related to multiple immediate and long-term negative outcomes for victims, such as poor school outcomes, lower levels of well-being, anxiety and depression, emotional distress, substance abuse, high levels of sexual risk-taking behavior and dating violence.

Sex-based harassment usually emerges during early adolescence at the onset of puberty (late elementary and early middle school) and is related to earlier bullying behavior. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, using a sample of middle school students, identified a Bully-Sexual Violence Pathway showing that bullying and homophobic teasing predict later sex-based harassment.  This developmental pathway illustrates the importance of early intervention with both bullying and sex-based harassment at all school levels.

Schools that receive federal funding are required under Title IX to prevent and remedy sex-based harassment. Given this, it’s important for all school personnel to be knowledgeable about their role in responding to this issue as defined by Title IX. In a typical school day, however, students engage in behaviors that don’t reach the Title IX reporting criteria for sex-based harassment (“unwelcome conduct on the basis of sex that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity”), yet are inappropriate, harmful, and erode norms that support a healthy learning environment. School-based efforts to prevent sex-based harassment, as with bullying, require a whole-school effort. School counselors, with an investment in student mental health, are in a key position to encourage school personnel to work collaboratively to address sex-based harassment.

Comprehensive planning is an effective approach for implementing and evaluating interventions selected by schools to reduce this form of harassment. Under the leadership of school administration, a plan can be developed to address influential school-wide factors including both system factors (school policies, school climate, data that informs decision-making) and individual factors (school personnel and student knowledge of and adherence to school sex-based harassment policy). Educational interventions for school personnel and students that address sex-based harassment support the development of healthy behavior and promote a healthy school environment.

Specific to the school counselor, the school-wide plan should include counseling interventions built upon ASCA’s multitiered system of supports focusing on the social/emotional domain (expanded explicitly to social/emotional/sexual) with three tiers of learning supports. The school counselor can organize and administer these interventions, playing major roles as advocate, consultant, collaborator and direct-service provider.

Tier 1, the core program of universal supports for all students, includes interventions in the social/emotional/sexual domain that prepare all students to meet the challenges of adolescence and become sexually healthy and responsible adults. This tier should include social/ emotional learning (SEL), sexuality education, and consent education.

Tier 2 interventions are provided for students at risk for victimization and/or perpetration of bullying and/or sex-based harassment. These can include short-term monitoring/consultation with teachers and parents, short-term counseling, peer or adult mentoring, creating safe spaces for reporting/discussion, and small-group SEL for students who could benefit from skill building beyond universal intervention.  

Tier 3 interventions, focusing on the needs of students who are already victims and/or perpetrators of sex-based harassment, include short-term counseling, problem assessment and support, while consulting with school personnel, parents/caretakers, and community-based resource providers to determine the best intervention. The school counselor can make appropriate referrals for services based on knowledge of the student and knowledge of available services.

School counselors should research Tier 1, 2, and 3 interventions to be sure they are developmentally appropriate, address targeted behaviors, have empirical evidence of effectiveness, and are culturally responsive and appropriate for recipients.  

Sex-based harassment is addressed most effectively through a comprehensive approach that recognizes the link between bullying and sex-based harassment and integrates both in a planning process that utilizes data (needs assessment and evaluation) to guide school-wide and counselor interventions. School counselors can be leaders in supporting this process.

Nancy J. Cunningham, Ph.D., is an emeritus professor with the Department of Counseling and Human Development at the University of Louisville in Louisville, KY. Contact her at Shaun M. Sowell, Ph.D., is an assistant professor with the school counseling program at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.

This article is the practitioner summary of the full journal article in Professional School Counseling.