Often students, as well as employees, use the term “harassment” to describe unwanted conduct and behaviors directed toward them by a peer or a superior, which they find offensive or demeaning. The term can have many meanings, however, and misuse of the term can lead to miscommunication and frustration over the best way to resolve the damage to relationships caused by what is perceived to be harassing behaviors.
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Unlawful harassment is a legal concept under continual refinement by government policy makers, particularly the judicial system. Beginning in the 1980s, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was interpreted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to include workplace sexual harassment as an actionable theory of gender discrimination.
Courts have since developed the case law under Titles VII and IX, which ensures gender equity in the provision of federally funded educational benefits, and now recognizes a cause of action for damages caused by gender-based harassment of employees and students. Moreover, harassment based on other protected traits such as race, religion, national origin and disability also are recognized by the federal and state courts.
In recognition of these developments in the law, Virginia Commonwealth University has developed policies over the years prohibiting workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment, prohibiting student sexual misconduct and regulating consensual relationships between faculty and students.
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VCU’s Student Sexual Misconduct Policy expressly defines and prohibits sexual misconduct between students.
- Student sexual misconduct is defined as unwelcome acts of a sexual nature committed by a student against another student without consent, including sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and/or other verbal or physical conduct. This includes written communications of an intimidating, hostile or offensive nature, or action taken in retaliation for the reporting of such behavior.
- Student sexual misconduct may include, but is not limited to, unwelcome touching — either of the victim or when the victim is forced to touch another person’s body, directly or through clothing — such as patting, pinching, brushing against the body, attempted or actual kissing or fondling and any other inappropriate and/or unwelcome touching or feeling; coerced sexual intercourse (e.g., rape, attempted rape, sodomy or other sexual acts or misconduct); unwelcome sexual propositions, invitations or other pressure for sex; implied or overt threats of a sexual nature; making gestures of a sexual nature; unwelcome sexual remarks about clothing, body or sexual activities; and humor and jokes about sex that denigrate women or men in general.
- Acts of physical student sexual misconduct are commonly considered to constitute a form of sexual assault when occurring without consent. To constitute lack of consent, the acts must be committed either by threat, force, intimidation or through the use of the victim’s physical or mental inability (of which the accused was aware or should have been aware) to understand the situation, consequences of his/her choices or to express his/her desires.
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In addition, the university has adopted a Faculty-Student Consensual Relationships policy aimed at reducing the potential for harm created from consensual relationships that sometimes develop between instructors and their students.
The university is committed to maintaining learning and work environments as free as possible from conflict of interest, exploitation and favoritism. Therefore, employees, whether faculty or staff, are not allowed to engage in consensual relations with students whenever the employee has a “position of authority” with respect to the student in such matters as teaching or in otherwise evaluating, supervising or advising a student as part of a school program or employment situation. The policy includes reporting requirements aimed at reducing the potential for conflicts of interest.
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If you feel that you have been subjected to unlawful harassment, or severe and pervasive mistreatment that interferes with your access to or attainment of an educational benefit, you are encouraged to report that to the senior associate dean for medical education and student affairs or the associate dean for student affairs in the School of Medicine and/or the EEO/AA office for investigation and resolution.