Amidst the #Metoo movement and Harvey Weinstein perp walk, one might begin to believe that dealing with the nuts and bolts of reporting sexual harassment would suddenly get easier. It really hasn’t, but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t. You totally should.
Realistically, it might cost you something. Why? Well, reporting it doesn’t mean that it will stop. You might actually experience retaliation. You could get fired if you’re being harassed in the workplace and report it. Teachers could treat you differently if you’re being harassed at school. You could become a pariah if the person harassing you is well-liked.
In the past month, I’ve witnessed all of this, and I am trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it. I was never naive about what could happen when I decided to report my harasser to my college’s administration. The last time I reported sexual harassment I was fired. I actually lost my job! The company was in the middle of an IPO, and they didn’t want any trouble. Rather than fire the harasser, they fired me–the woman who talked.
The best part of this story, however, is that, during that time, I was having coffee once a week with a man who was a former FBI special agent. We originally met at Starbucks where I often studied. He was a regular. I was a regular. Somehow, his regular coffee visits turned into coffee with me. We discussed politics and current events, and he liked French literature which is what I was studying. He always wore a seersucker suit with a bowtie. His name was Charlie. He retired from the FBI and became a foremost expert in administering polygraph tests. Think Robert DeNiro’s character in “Meet the Parents”. He traveled all over the world administering polygraph tests. I would try so hard to tempt him into telling me stories about his latest trips, but the man was a vault. He would just smirk and redirect the conversation.
On the day I was fired from my job for reporting sexual harassment, I went to Starbucks seeking sugary consolation and ordered the most fattening drink they had. I found a hidden corner table, licked whipped cream off a spoon, and cried. Charlie came in for his regular black coffee and saw me. He was always very affable and gentle, but, when he saw me crying, he wasn’t affable at all. He became the FBI agent. The interrogation began. Why was I crying? Who did it? What happened? I told him the whole story complete with the disgusting details of the harassment and the humiliating firing while stuffing a peanut butter cookie in my mouth. He nodded. He pulled out his business card, wrote a number on it, and said, “Call this number and tell them I sent you.”
It was a lawyer. I groaned and told him that I didn’t want a lawyer. I just wanted to put the situation behind me. He insisted. I reluctantly called the number the next day. The woman on the other end of the line curtly told me that everyone was busy until I said, “Charlie told me to call.” Suddenly, she said, “One moment please.”
In a matter of seconds, a male voice was on the line. He arranged an appointment the next day, and I met with him. As it turns out, the lawyer I met that day was former White House counsel, and he was exceedingly polite and accommodating. He listened to my entire story. Had “The West Wing” been a TV show at that time, I would have felt like I was in an episode. In the end, it was decided that there was nothing I could do. I was wrongfully fired, but some injustices you just have to swallow. That never felt right to me. I think men and women are just plain tired of swallowing against their will.
Ten years later, a class action lawsuit was filed by a class of women in that company that fired me, and they won. And, I received a check in the mail for a few thousand dollars. As it turns out, that company made a habit of firing women who reported sexual harassment. My reporting the harassment–and being fired–established a record. There is no legal record if you don’t report the harassment. That is one reason why you must report harassment. It is vital to establish a record. In this way, if someone is harassed after you and they report it, the record shows that others have made reports as well. And, this is how you build a case.
Why is building a case important? Well, in the case of institutions, it becomes vital because an individual case of harassment can rarely take down an institution or, at a minimum, bring disciplinary measures. Institutions have far more resources in terms of money and legal representation than any one person; but if a group of people (like a class) can show a pattern relating to an institution (like a group of women and my former company), then traction can be made in terms of legitimizing complaints.
In my current situation, I reported to my school’s administration that I had been harassed. They failed to implement Title IX policy. I documented that. My harasser harassed me again. I documented that and reported it. The school failed to implement Title IX policy again. I filed for an HRO and a judge granted it. My harasser is contesting the HRO, and I have to attend a hearing. I also reported the Title IX implementation failure to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The OCR has contacted me, and I speak to them this week via a phone interview. If the OCR decides that my case is not severe enough to pursue, then at least there will be a record. If anyone else reports anything to the OCR in the future, then my case will be on record and will also establish a pattern.
Proper documentation and reporting are vital even if you are afraid. In fact, I can guarantee that if you are experiencing harassment, you will be anxious. I am, but fear of intimidation and retaliation is exactly why harassment in various settings has been allowed to persist. Yes, this is exhausting. Yes, I don’t even want to go to school. I’m weary of looking at the administrators. Had they done their jobs in the first place, I wouldn’t be in this position. I can state with certainty that I don’t want to go to court. Alas, the rest of society is in a position to put a stop to a culture that condones harassment because large numbers of people standing together with a unified voice are far harder to intimidate and retaliate against than a select few. Maintaining that unity over the longterm is how we will change this culture.
I encourage you to initiate change by educating yourself and those around you. We can potentially build a world where #Metoo won’t even be a thing anymore.
Resisting Rulemaking: Challenging the Montana Settlement’s Title IX Sexual Harassment Blueprint (this is published in Notre Dame Law Review and provides an excellent “blueprint” for what schools, colleges, and universities should do under Title IX policies and procedures in the context of harassment. It is also excellent in terms of educating oneself in the language of Title IX and what one’s rights are as well as what one should expect in terms of what Title IX provides. It is a must read if you attend a school that receives federal funding aka FAFSA funding.)