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Opening eyes to harassment laws

By Christian Avard | Vermont Guardian

Posted February 16, 2007

BRATTLEBORO — She always considered herself a strong and outspoken person, yet she’s had two experiences where she was sexually harassed.

First, it was a colleague, and friend, where she taught. He invited her into his office, closed the door, and described in lurid detail what fun they could have. She left a year later with the incident never resolved.

Years later, she worked with a man who constantly expressed how people should not have relationships in the workplace. But that didn’t stop him from inviting her to go on a business trip to Russia — minus his wife. She turned down his request, left her job, and again did nothing.

Looking back, Wendy Love, now the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, wishes she could have handled those situations differently. And, she believes her experiences are not uncommon for most women — both nationally and in Vermont.

“According to the American Psychological Association, 71 percent of working women will be subjected to sexual harassment at some point in their careers,” said Love at a recent seminar held in Brattleboro. The seminar focused on sexual harassment in the schools and the workplace, and was sponsored by the American Association of University Women and the League of Women Voters in Brattleboro.

In 1964, the Commission on Women was established in Vermont to decrease discrimination and encourage opportunity for women, Love noted. “Since then, they have really been working hard on the issue and it’s still not settled,” she said.

In the 1980s, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) established advanced guidelines for sexual harassment, but Love said most of the legislation didn’t cover all Vermont employees, and not all of them were aware of the law.

It covered “employers who had more than 10,15, 20, or [who were unionized]. We didn’t get our first solid legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace and the schools until 1993 and 1994 and since then they’ve been tweaking the legislation in the schools because not much has happened,” Love said. “So the question we want to look at is what is really going on? Why do people feel like they can’t report it?”

In their fifth edition on the status of women and girls in Vermont, the Vermont Commission on Women found that the attorney general’s civil rights unit dealt with approximately 10 to 20 sexual harassment claims per year from 2002 to 2006. In Vermont, this unit deals with most cases involving sexual harassment. If a client works for the state, then the Vermont Human Rights Commission handles the case. Individuals also have the option to pursue cases privately.

According to Love and others, many workplaces and school settings still aren’t following through once issues arise and are dealt with initially.

In recent years, a lot of attention and concern has been focused on the issue of harassment in Vermont schools that range from sexual harassment to bullying.

In 2003, a middle school-aged boy in Essex Junction — Ryan Patrick Halligan — committed suicide after being bullied by classmates both in school and online, and more recently a teenage girl was harassed by classmates in South Burlington — via electronic means such as websites and instant messaging — to the point where she had to transfer schools.

Last year, ALANA, an educational and advocacy organization focusing on inclusive and equitable communities, handled up to 60 cases from around the state dealing with sexual harassment and bullying in the schools.

ALANA has found that many school administrators and teachers remain ill-equipped to handle situations as they occur. In 2002-2003, ALANA surveyed about 350 public schools to see how they are addressing this issue. Out of the 90 schools that responded, ALANA found that school administrators only spend 15 minutes a year discussing these issues.

Curtiss Reed, ALANA’s executive director, wonders why Vermont schools aren’t doing more.

“Vermont has one of the most stringent harassment education laws that covers minorities including family members [such as gay and lesbian couples]. What does it mean to have the most stringent law in the country if no one knows about it?” wondered Reed. “[Our goal] is to dedicate our time to explaining to people about these laws — Act 91 on harassment and Act 117 that focuses on bullying. About 10 percent of [our cases] focus on sexual harassment but the common thread is school administrations do not view the occurrences as sexual harassment.”

Reed’s other concern is the lack of knowledge — among all stakeholders — that these laws even exist in the state.

“Our best estimate is that probably 80 percent of Vermont schools are not applying the laws. A lot of school personnel are ignorant of the law as well. Our concern is how do we parents [ensure] that schools are applying the law and how do we get our public officials to take these laws seriously or otherwise [offenders] will continue to [harass and/or] bully. There is a low reporting rate because administrators turn a blind eye. In some cases, the culture in the school dismisses it because if I know then I’m obligated to do something. It’s difficult for students to understand when teachers and administrators don’t understand,” said Reed.

Yet Love and Reed, along with Melissa Italia of Direct Consultants for Workplace and Family Health, want to make schools and workplaces safe for everyone.

“Whether it’s work or school, they are all supposed to have policies on sexual harassment. It’s supposed to be posted that there is such a policy. They are all supposed to have a list of places and people you can go to in your school, community, or workplace to talk to in case you are upset about something. But the frustration is it still not happening [in most places]. Not everyone feels safe, and the goal is to create a climate that is safe from sexual harassment,” said Love.

Love, and others, hope to soon bridge the gap between knowledge of the laws and what can people do should they encounter a hostile co-worker or environment.

“I think despite the laws that we have in Vermont there’s always that big gap between the law and the public being aware of this and responsible individuals being aware of it. One of the things we do is public education. It’s how do you get the word out to parents, employers,” said Love. “They need to understand the law that tries to provide safeguards for them, and that will protect them when they come forward. They will not be fired for having filed a complaint or having come forward, but I think individuals need places to go … nobody should feel alone.”

For more information, contact the attorney general’s civil rights division, at 828-3657, the Vermont Commission on Human Rights at (800) 416-2010, or visit www.women.state.vt.us or www.alanavision.org. For more on the effects on cyber bullying, go to www.ryanpatrickhalligan.com.