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Sexual Harassment or Political Correctness Out of Control?

When is a hug a hug or something more? To Sam McNair, a 17 year old senior at Duluth High School in Georgia, his act of hugging a teacher was simply that: a hug. But to the teacher and the school district, the hug constituted sexual harassment, leading to McNair's suspension from school for a year.

Political correctness gone crazy, or a school following a zero tolerance policy? Legal issues are seldom black and white, and McNair's case is full of grey areas. His suspension was determined by hearing officers who consider witness testimony, a review of the known facts, and a student's past disciplinary history--including long-term suspensions that result in alternative school placement. McNair admits that he has a disciplinary record and previous suspensions, but not for sexual harassment.

McNair's mother, April McNair, plans to appeal the school board's decision. The suspension is "stripping him of the opportunity to even get a full scholarship for athletics for college," according to his mother.

What is the definition of sexual harassment? Since McNair's case does not fit into employment-based sexual harassment (quid pro quo or hostile work environment), it is helpful to look at the behavioral definition: unwanted sexual or gender based behavior that occurs when one person has formal or informal power over the other. The 3 major elements are:

  1. The behavior is unwanted or unwelcome;
  2. The behavior is sexual or related to the sex or gender of the person
  3. The behavior occurs in the context of a relationship where one person has more formal power than the other (faculty member over student) or more informal power (one peer over another)

In determining whether an act or series of actions constitutes sexual harassment, perspective is key. It is the perspective of the recipient of the behavior which generally determines whether the behavior is harassment (vs. flattery or teasing). Harassment usually indicates behavior that is repeated, and repeated despite objection by the recipient. Some behavior can be so outrageous that a one-time occurrence is enough to label it as sexual harassment. It is important to remember that sexual harassment, like sexual assault and rape, is more about power than sex. If you have any questions regarding this issue, please don't hesitate to contact you Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyer.

Are the above elements present in McNair's case? Taken from the perspective of the recipient, the teacher, the first two clearly are: the hug was unwanted, and was sexual (to the teacher). But what about the third element: the behavior occurs in context of a relationship where one person has more formal or informal power than the other; the person with the power is the harasser. In McNair's situation, the teacher had the formal power. The question is whether McNair had informal power.

McNair himself admitted to hugging other teachers before. The more relevant inquiry for purposes of a sexual harassment claim, however, is whether he had hugged that particular teacher before and whether she had objected to the hugs before. If the answer if "yes" to both, then the hugging is very likely to constitute sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment claims are very difficult legal actions and require a skilled attorney with knowledge of this complex area of the law. If you think you may be a victim of sexual harassment, contact your Atlanta Personal Injury Lawyer for information regarding sexual harassment law.

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