How should principal handle teacher’s vague sexual harassment report? 

Q: I’m a principal, and one of my teachers recently confided in me that she’s been sexually harassed by a male colleague. She said that he’s been asking her to perform sexual acts and making sexual comments. As she spoke, I had this gut sense that she’d been sexually assaulted and asked her if he’d made any unwanted physical advances. That’s when she shut down. She also wouldn’t tell me who’d been bothering her. I’m a male principal and recognize that it’s a sensitive issue, so I didn’t push it. She asked me to “write down” her report. I told her I would, but I explained that documenting wouldn’t do much good if I didn’t have a name.

In a way, her disclosure explains a lot. Staff members have spotted her crying in the bathroom. She’s been hovering around me, in particular, and I wonder now if she’s been trying to get up the nerve to talk to me. She’s also been much more intense and has needed more validation and reassurance than usual. I don’t know if it’s all related, but she’s definitely been off — and not in a good way. I want to support her, and I also want to make sure the school is a safe, harassment-free zone for my whole staff. Sorry to be crass, but if one of my teachers is an a**hole, he needs to go. How should I have handled this situation, and what do I do now?

A:  This is a bad situation, but the good news is that this teacher trusts you. Even if she didn’t want to share the extent of the abuse, her decision to talk to you at all is unusual. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) estimates that 25 to 85 percent of women have experienced workplace harassment, but they only report 25 percent of incidents. Victims might be reluctant to come forward for a range of reasons, from concern they won’t be believed to fear of retribution. Their fear is well-founded and valid. An EEOC study found that 75 percent of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation. 

Let’s start with your response in the moment. It sounds like you had good instincts. You took her seriously, stayed calm and let her know that you wanted to help. You explained that you only could do so much without a name, but that you’d document what she told you. You followed your gut and asked follow-up questions, but you were sensitive to her discomfort and didn’t push when she shut down. You also insightfully connected the dots between her recent changes in behavior and this disclosure. I suspect she felt your concern was genuine.

There are some gaps. Did she know whether there are any limits to confidentiality? If you want staff members to feel comfortable reporting problems, always be transparent. Will you have to report the harassment and/or assault if she gives you a name? Will you feel compelled to consult a school district attorney for advice? Are there laws, policies and procedures you must follow? If so, let her know so she can make informed decisions about how much she wants to share. Tell her that even if you make protecting her anonymity a priority, there’s always a risk that others will guess her involvement.

On the flip side, be clear that you can’t investigate wrongdoing if she doesn’t divulge the perpetrator’s name. That doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. I’d give her resources, including the contact information for your Employee Assistance Program. You say she’s been crying at work, hovering around you, and acting unusually intense and needy. You also have a hunch that she may have been sexually assaulted. I don’t know if she’s been trying to work up the nerve to ask you for help or feels safer at work in your presence, but these are red flags that suggest she’d benefit from counseling.

I’d also talk to her about her legal options. Let her know that while she can always tell you more if and when she’s ready, she also can contact human resources, the school district’s attorney or her union representative. She might find it easier to talk to someone outside her immediate work orbit. That said, this initial conversation with you may have been her way of testing your reaction. If you suspended doubt and judgement, it’s quite possible she’ll be back for a second conversation.

Whether or not she does, I’d keep your eyes and ears open going forward. Have there been other complaints about anyone in particular? Can you identify any problematic patterns? Is your sexual harassment training up-to-date and effective? As the EEOC notes, much of the training done over the last 30 years has been about avoiding legal liability. Recent research has shown that perspective-taking interventions work better than the threat of punishment.

The education field isn’t immune from sexual harassment, and I give you a lot of credit for asking this question. All school administrators need to be mindful of the type of environment they’re creating. Does the climate encourage respectful behavior? Do employees feel safe reporting problems? In your case, it sounds like you’re on the right track.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.

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