Ethical Educator

Punishing the Harasser ... Or Not?
School Administrator, April 2018

Scenario: The superintendent is dealing with a sexual harassment allegation involving a principal and an office staff member — something the superintendent characterizes as “one person’s word against the other.” The school board’s attorney recommends allowing the alleged perpetrator to come back to work with a sternly worded letter of reprimand. The superintendent believes the principal should remain on leave for the duration of the year but has some doubt, admitting, “It was clearly my opinion that the alleged person did cross the line.” How might you proceed?

Sarah Jerome: 
The accuser and the accused must be interviewed and have due process procedures followed carefully. Any witnesses should be interviewed.

If the superintendent believes the principal harassed an office staff member, the superintendent should ask the principal to resign. If the principal refuses to resign, the principal should remain on leave while appropriate steps are taken to dismiss the principal. If the dismissal does not take place, the superintendent must document the event and clearly spell out that any repeated harassment will result in dismissal.  

Whether the principal returns to work or is dismissed, the office staff member may need to be reassigned to a different work setting. The staff member should not be left in a hostile work environment nor supervised by the alleged harasser.
Meira Levinson:
Both the superintendent and the attorney seem to believe there is significant evidence of harassment, given the superintendent’s expressed opinion that the principal “did cross the line” and the attorney’s recommendation that the principal be given a sternly worded reprimand.
Given this, the principal should receive more feedback than just a sternly worded letter. He or she should receive training about the characteristics of sexual harassment (e.g., that it is frequent or severe, creates a hostile work environment and need not involve physical contact or demands for sexual favors), about how to avoid harassing others and about the consequences of committing future offenses. It sounds as if school and district staff, up to and including the superintendent, also could use a refresher course on these topics.

Prior to the principal’s return to work, human resources or central-office officials should reach out to the alleged victim, the office staff member. He or she should be reassured the complaint was taken seriously, that appropriate administrative and training actions have been taken and that any further harassment will generate severe consequences for the perpetrator.
The district also should remain involved in ensuring that a professional and supportive culture is (re)established and maintained at the school.
Shelley Berman:
Sexual harassment involves a range of behaviors from indirect comments that make a person uncomfortable to quid pro quo solicitations of sexual favors from a subordinate. Although the reasons for the allegation in this case are not specified, it is clear that neither a letter of reprimand nor continued leave will resolve the issue.
If the superintendent believes the principal crossed the line, returning the principal to the school with a reprimand, even at a later date, will not allay the victim's concern. Leaving the situation as one person’s word against another’s demeans the victim and perpetuates a hostile environment.
The superintendent may not have done a sufficient job of investigating the allegation. Evidently, the principal disavows any wrongdoing. Given all the training in harassment that administrators receive, the principal should be well aware of the laws and the implications of his alleged actions.
At this point, the superintendent should press the issue with the principal to determine whether the principal denies the incident(s) ever happened—or will acknowledge that statements or actions occurred that could have been interpreted or even misinterpreted in a way that made the office staff member uncomfortable. While outright denial may mean the principal fails to recognize the impact of the statements or actions and thus should not return to the position, acceptance of responsibility opens up the possibility of a resolution.
The superintendent also must interview the victim to uncover additional evidence. In situations like this, the individual often confides in close friends or colleagues and they may be able to confirm that the victim shared these concerns. Since harassing behavior is often evident to observers, the superintendent has to widen the net and interview others who may have observed the alleged behavior. At the same time, the superintendent must remain open to the possibility that other circumstances may have motivated the complainant and that the principal’s denial is truthful. It is important to complete the investigation in a timely manner because many people are affected and the ramifications can escalate over time.

If a thorough investigation confirms that one or more incidents of harassment actually did take place, the principal cannot be permitted to return to the position. If the incident was a misunderstanding and the principal is willing to acknowledge this and address it directly, the superintendent may want to determine whether the two individuals can work together again effectively. 

One initial step is to directly ask the victim what he or she would like to have happen. Honoring the victim’s perceptions and supporting that individual are critical not only to that employee but to the entire staff. How the superintendent manages the situation will make a clear statement as to whether this kind of behavior will be tolerated, whether people will be respected and protected and whether the working environment will be free of harassment.

Maggie Lopez:

A sexual harassment allegation is a serious matter. Consequently, the superintendent should adhere to the specific district policies and procedures that address sexual harassment allegations. 

The superintendent needs to take this allegation seriously and direct the human resources department to investigate the alleged sexual harassment claim against the principal. Without an investigation where the facts can be reviewed under the guidance of legal counsel, no further decisions can be made. Until the investigation is completed, the principal should not return to the school.  

Once the district completes the investigation on the claim filed, then the facts should direct the superintendent, with direction from legal counsel to determine the next steps. These may include a reprimand with a plan to address resolution between the principal and staff member, dismissal or resignation of the principal if the facts warrant such action or any other prudent and reasonable actions that ensure the concern has been appropriately and legally addressed.  

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; and Maggie Lopez, interim superintendent, Eagle County, Colo.