A school’s duty of care clearly extends to taking reasonable steps to protect its students from sexual harassment from their peers. This is after all simply a form of bullying. However, the position becomes more difficult when the alleged behaviour is not clearly improper. If a school punishes a student for what parents say is a minor offence, it faces scrutiny. But if a school doesn’t take a complaint seriously, it could be held responsible if some harm occurs.
For example, in one case, a school was found wanting when it didn’t respond in a timely manner to a Year 1 girl’s complaints that a group of boys, ages 6 to 9, were harassing her on the school bus. On the other hand, in a US school, a boy who told a girl to fix her bra strap during gym class was accused of sexual harassment, suspended for two days, and temporarily assigned to an alternative school. The school changed the offence to “bullying” after his parents complained that the sex-related charge was inaccurate and severe.
Schools need to develop policies dealing with public displays of affection (PDA). Do you ban all hugging and hand-holding? If not, where do you draw the line? Fossil Hill Middle School in the US has a ban on hugging and hand-holding. Is this unreasonable? The school made national headlines recently after a teacher chided a Year 8 girl for holding hands with a male friend. In response, she started a petition to force the school to change its rules. “I can understand how a 25 minute hug or making out in the hallway would be PDA, but I don't see how holding hands is,” she said.