Here’s what you need to know about identifying and stopping sexual harassment in your children’s ministry.
Seven-year-old Cheltzie Hentz was rudely awakened to the world of sexual harassment on her school bus. Boys repeatedly called the Eden Prairie, Minnesota, second-grader crude names and made fun of her because she didn’t have a penis.
After her mother, Sue Mutziger, submitted 22 pages of complaints, the boys were lectured and briefly suspended. But Mutziger felt the schools didn’t do enough to protect her daughter. She filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR ruled that her daughter was indeed sexually harassed and that the school district “failed to take timely and effective action” to deal with or prevent the situation.
With today’s heightened sensitivity to sexual harassment, how can you know if it’s happening in your ministry?
Defining Sexual Harassment
Defining sexual harassment is a daunting task that’s difficult even for the courts. To one girl, a boy’s comments may be flirting. To another girl, the same comments made by the same boy may constitute a menace. So much of it is up to the individual’s point of view.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that unreasonably interferes with a person’s work performance or creates an intimidating or hostile or offensive environment.”
For children, some experts redefine sexual harassment as conduct of a sexual nature that causes a child to feel humiliated, scared, or uncomfortable.
Fighting Sexual Harassment
Combat sexual harassment with the following:
Establish a policy.
Your policy must apply to children and staff. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, a sexual harassment policy must contain the following:
- A stand against harassment.
- A definition of harassment.
- A listing of consequences for sexual harassment, such as suspension from involvement in ministry activities for a certain time.
- A promise to review all complaints.
- An explanation of the complaint process (the complaint is to be put in writing).
- A promise of protection from retaliation for any complaints.
- A promise of confidentiality for everyone involved.
Educate volunteers on sexual harassment.
Your staff members need to know what to do if they overhear a harassment or if a child complains to them. Why? The most important thing you can do in an alleged harassment situation is to protect the victimized child. Secondly, failure to act decisively could result in an expensive lawsuit from that child’s parents.
Encourage children to report.
Tell children you want to know about anything that makes them uncomfortable-whether actions or words from other children or staff. Tell kids that no one has permission to touch them or say anything that makes them feel yucky about being a boy or a girl.
Involve parents in sexual harassment complaints.
Before an incident occurs, distribute your policy to parents. Then if there ever is a complaint, involve the parents of the child with the complaint and the child or children who are accused of harassment. Tell parents what you’ve learned and involve them in the process of finding the truth.
Set up a meeting.
Meet with the senior pastor, the involved children, and their parents. Ask both sides to tell how they perceive the situation. If there is evidence of sexual harassment, remind parents of your policy and carry out the consequences of the policy.
Monitor children’s behavior closely.
Don’t throw a harassed child to the wolves. Provide constant supervision for children who previously experienced harassment. If there are more violations, intervene swiftly.
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