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Legal advocates comment on sexual harassment


Sandpiper writer Scott McMahon surveyed Carmel High School students and staff about the sexual harassment presentation displayed at the CHS theater in early March. What he gathered was that the presentation left viewers with more questions than answers. The questions are as follows and the answers are articulated by experts in the field.


What do I do if I think I’m getting sexually harassed?


To be sexual harassment, the act, whether verbal or physical, must be occurring often enough to make the recipient feel uncomfortable and often enough to interfere with the recipient’s ability to attend class or other school activities, according to Equal Rights Advocates.


By law, schools are required to stop sexual harassment if they are made aware of it, says Carrie LeRoy, a partner at White & Case LLP and creator of Skadden Palo Alto’s pro bono impact program in conjunction with Legal Advocates for Children and Youth.


“If you tell a school official verbally, also do it in writing—give the school a copy and keep one for yourself,” LeRoy says.


What do I do if I think I’m getting sexually harassed in college? In a workplace?


Dealing with sexual harassment is consistent wherever the victim is: Tell someone. The risk of becoming a victim, however, statistically increases in college and again in the workforce.


According to the Huffington Post, one in five students is sexually assaulted on a college campus. Campus harassment has been dubbed a “gateway crime,” creating a culture where words can escalate to physical contact and other forms of violence, including stalking, assault or rape. In fact, according to research by Cornell’s ILR Institute, harassment in public space has similar emotional impacts as sexual assault or rape.


A study done by RAINN, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, shows that more than 50 percent of college sexual assaults occur in August, September, October or November, and that students are at an increased risk during the first few months of their first and second semesters in college. Accordingly, college campuses have prepared for this increase.


Eighty-six percent of sworn campus law enforcement officials have legal authority to make an arrest off campus grounds, as well as having a staff member responsible for rape prevention programming.


What kind of sexual assault can be taken to court?


Victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse can—and often do—file lawsuits against perpetrators in civil court. Even though any kind of sexual assault incident can give rise to a criminal prosecution, which can result in jail time, fines, probation and other sanctions against the defendant if a conviction is obtained, a civil lawsuit is usually the only way that a sexual assault victim can get monetary compensation for harm suffered, according to LeRoy.


After an initial report is made to law enforcement, a survivor can decide whether or not they would like to move forward with the investigation by pressing charges. Ultimately, the decision to press criminal charges is up to the state. It’s possible, though uncommon, that a prosecutor may move forward with charges based solely on the available evidence, even if the survivor chooses not to be involved.


Many sexual assault cases are resolved through a plea bargain, however. This is an agreement between the prosecutor and perpetrator’s representative, in which the perpetrator agrees to plead guilty to a crime in return for a reduction in penalty, such as a lighter sentence. This course of action does not involve or require the survivor to testify.


If the case does go to trial it will be tried in criminal court, and the survivor will generally be asked to testify. Some aspects of state and federal law are designed to protect the interests of survivors who participate in a trial. One example is a rape shield law, which limits what the defense can ask the victim about prior sexual history. The prosecutor can also file legal motions to try to protect the victim from having to disclose other personal information.


What are the specific legal risks?


Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to employers with 15 or more employees.


After a jury finds a defendant guilty of sexual assault, the case goes to the judge for sentencing. Judges rely on several factors to determine a sentence. First, the criminal statutes will usually set a range of punishments for sexual assault. This will often consist of a maximum and minimum prison term, as well as fines and other penalties.


Judges also examine aggravating and mitigating factors when deciding on the exact terms of the sentence. Aggravating factors are those factors such as a defendant’s criminal history and the severity of the crime that suggest a need for a harsher punishment. Mitigating factors, on the other hand, support a more lenient sentence.


Just as every state has its own law concerning sexual assault, every state has a different sentencing scheme in place for those convicted of sexual assault. The federal government also has its own set of sentencing rules. For example, in California, a sexual assault conviction carries a possible sentence of 24, 36, or 48 months in prison, as well as a possible $10,000 fine.

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