How to use this guide
For information on your rights regarding online sexual harassment that happens during remote virtual learning, see our Online Harassment & Cyberbullying guide.
- If you would like to apply for free legal help or advice about a California school-related issue, please fill out this form to request an appointment with one of ERA’s trained legal counselors (ENOUGH advocates). All services provided are completely free and confidential.
Content warning: This guide contains information and examples of sexual assault and sexual harassment that may be triggering or overwhelming for you, especially if you are a survivor of sexual violence. Please be aware of your emotional and mental needs while reading. You may want to take breaks, skip over or skim some sections, or ask a trusted loved one to read it for you and take notes.
How to use this guide: The purpose of this Know Your Rights Guide is to help you understand your rights and options if you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment at a school or university. This guide is not official legal advice. Laws frequently change and can be interpreted in different ways, so we cannot guarantee that all of the information in this Guide is accurate as it applies to your specific situation.
Definitions & Examples
There are different forms of sexual assault and sexual harassment. You can be assaulted or harassed by a fellow student, a teacher, professor, coach, staff or faculty member, or (if you work at the school) by a coworker.
Sexual Assault is a physical invasion of your body. It can sometimes result in bodily harm or injury, as well as psychological and emotional trauma. The definition of sexual assault includes rape, as well as other acts that invade or hurt your body. Other examples of sexual assault include inappropriate touching, groping, attempted rape, forcing you to perform a sexual act, or penetrating any part of your body with a part of their body, or with an object. If what happened included unwelcome touching of your body, the situation may have involved sexual assault.
Sexual Harassment ranges from unwanted touching, gesturing, and inappropriate jokes, to someone promising you a good grade or a promotion in exchange for sexual favors or requiring sexual favors in order to give you something you deserve or want in a school or work setting. Sexual harassment does not always have to be “sexual.” It can also look or feel like teasing, intimidating or offensive comments based on stereotypes (e.g., about how certain people “are” or should act), or bullying someone based on their sex, gender identity (man, woman, trans, intersex, nonbinary, two-spirit) or sexual orientation (queer, bisexual, lesbian, gay, asexual, pansexual, etc.). There is no requirement that the sexually harassing person or persons derive any sexual pleasure from their acts or that they are sexually attracted to their victims.
In short, sexual harassment is harassment that is sexual, sex-based, or gender-based in the nature of the harassment itself, regardless of the orientation, gender-identity, sexual interests or pleasure of the harasser.
Examples of sexual harassment include but are not limited to:
- unwanted repeated requests for sexual favors or dates from a peer
- requests for sexual favors or dates from a teacher to a student in a k-12 setting
- inappropriate or lewd comments said or repeated to you or around you
- inappropriate or lewd comments about someone’s body or appearance
- saying bad things about someone (or about a group of people) based on gender identity or sexuality
- gender-based or sexuality-based slurs (swear words)
- jokes about sex, or making fun of people generally based on their gender identity or sexuality (i.e. “all women…” or “bisexual people are…”)
- Note: It can still count as sexual harassment even if the behavior or comment is not aimed at you specifically. For example, if you are a trans student who hears a group of other students making offensive jokes or insults about trans people in general, that could still be considered harassment even if they were not directing those comments to you as an individual.
- unwanted emails, texts, messages, videos, or photos of a sexual nature
- gossip about someone’s personal relationships or sex life
- unwanted touching of any body part, clothing, face, or hair
- staring, leering, or making gestures of a sexual nature
- blocking someone’s way or their movement, especially in a physically threatening or intimidating way
- inappropriate touching, massaging, kissing, or hugging
- flashing or mooning
- vulgar pictures or pornography, even if those pictures are not of or about you, if they are shown to you against your will repeatedly or in the context of other harassment.
- Note: pornographic pictures of anybody under the age of 18 is illegal child pornography, even if the person who took or shared the pictures is also under the age of 18. If you are reporting vulgar pictures or pornography, the age of the subject of the pictures or videos can be an important fact to tell the responsible school party you are reporting to.
Important things to remember
- Legally, for something to be considered sexual assault or harassment, what matters is what the victim/survivor experienced. It does not matter if the person who did the assaulting or harassing thinks it was OK, harmless, not sexual, or “welcomed” (they thought you liked it, wanted it, or didn’t have a problem with it). It counts as sexual assault or harassment if the behavior made you feel unsafe or uncomfortable, was unwanted, or violated your body.
- It counts as sexual harassment even if you did not immediately say “stop,” or “no,” or something else to let the person know that what they were doing or saying was unwanted or inappropriate. For example, you might laugh at a joke, or accept a hug, because you’re caught off guard in the moment, or because you’re worried the person will react badly if you don’t go along. Or, in the case of sexual assault, you may have been too drunk or inebriated to consent. This is not your fault. Nobody deserves to be harmed by another person when incapacitated, no matter what.
- You can still experience sexual assault event if you previously consented to sexual activity with that person, or if you used to date them or sleep with them. Saying “yes” once or even multiple times does not mean that you said “yes” to other sexual acts. Consent must be given (and asked for) every time.
- Most importantly: It is never the victim’s or survivor’s fault. Do not let anyone blame or shame you.
What are the laws?
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are considered versions of unlawful gender discrimination at school. Both are illegal across the country.
Title IX (“Title 9”) of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 makes discrimination based on gender illegal at schools, colleges, and school programs (including school-affiliated sports teams, programs, and clubs) and in any education program that receives federal funds (i.e., prison diploma programs, construction trade training programs). Sexual assault and sexual harassment are forms of gender discrimination under this law.
If you are sexually assaulted or sexually harassed at school – or if the harassment or assault has a negative impact on your equal access to school (for example, if you have a class with the person who assaulted you at a party off campus, or if the fear and anxiety of running into that person even if you don’t have a class with them is interfering with your equal ability to move around your campus as a student would) – you can report the incident (called “making a Title IX complaint”) to your school and request that they take immediate, reasonable, action to help you feel safer while they investigate your Title IX complaint.
- The Title IX process will take place at your school only. It is not connected to the criminal justice system, so it will not involve off-campus police, jail, or a trial court. While you can file a criminal complaint and a Title IX complaint at the same time if you want to, these are separate processes investigated by different authorities. Title IX is a type of student misconduct complaint. A school must begin, continue, or complete their internal Title IX investigation regardless of whether a separate police investigation is undertaken or ongoing.
- Legally, your school must share (or make available) its policies on sexual harassment and sexual assault with every student, teacher, and staff member. (Those policies may be under a “gender discrimination” section in the student handbook, HR manual, or school board policies.) Your school must also provide students with information about how to report sexual violence or harassment, known as a “grievance procedure.” This policy should tell you what happens after you report, including how the investigation will go, and what “interim measures” are available from the school to help you feel safe during the investigation.
- Note about Title IX at private schools: If the school receives any federal funding, they must comply with Title IX. This includes most but not all private and religious schools. If you’re not sure whether your school receives any federal funding our how to find out, contact an ERA team member through our ENOUGH program.
2. If you report sexual assault or harassment, your school cannot ignore you or blame you. The law requires all federally funded schools and colleges to respond to reports of sexual assault or sexual harassment in a reasonably quick and appropriate way. This means once you tell your school about sexual harassment or sexual assault, they should start an investigation without much of a delay (it may take a few days, but should not take longer, unless you report over a school closure or holiday period, in which case it should not take longer than a couple weeks after school resumes). If the results of the investigation show that the sexual assault or sexual harassment more likely than not occurred, your school must then take immediate steps to stop the harassment or assault if it is ongoing, or to prevent it from happening again.
Sometimes schools don’t follow the law. Schools can break the law by mistreating or ignoring those who report sexual assault or sexual harassment. For example:
- The investigation could be delayed, or could drag on for too long
- The school could ignore or dismiss you
- They could try to get you to drop the complaint
- They could lash out against you for reporting, or make you feel as if it was your fault
- They could tell you they’re not required to investigate your complaint when in fact they might be, based on what you have learned about your rights here.
If any of these things happened to you, if your school investigated and did nothing to help make you feel safer, or if your school made things even worse for you when you reported to them what happened to you (this is a type of bad response known as “institutional betrayal”) you could take legal action. If you’d like to apply to speak to a legal advocate for free about your options for taking action, fill out this form.
Schools must also do something to address the negative results of the sexual assault or sexual harassment, which could mean providing counseling for you, or giving you academic support, such as allowing you to re-take a test or a class if your grades suffered as a result of the assault or harassment.
3. Retaliation is illegal.
It’s illegal for anyone to retaliate against (punish or intimidate) you for reporting or speaking out against sexual harassment or sexual assault that happened to you or someone else, or for participating in an investigation. Examples of retaliation for reporting include:
- if your school tries to limit where you, the victim of harassment or assault, can go. (For example, a Mutual No-Contact Order that says you must leave a place if you see your assailant there.)
- if you, the victim of harassment or assault, are asked to switch classes or move dorms
- if you’re not allowed to go to certain places at certain times
- if a school official or investigator makes you feel ashamed, or makes you feel like if was your fault that you were harassed or assaulted
- if someone threatens you, tries to make you drop the complaint/investigation, intimidates you, or coerces you (promises you something in exchange for dropping the complaint/investigation)
- if you work at the school or school program, and you’re fired or demoted; you receive a pay cut or a reduction of hours or benefits; you’re assigned a different shift, location, or position; you receive new or different duties; or you’re asked to take time off.
If you were retaliated against and would like to apply to speak with a legal advocate for free about your options, fill out this form.
What are my rights?
You have the right to:
1. Feel safe at school after sexual assault or sexual harassment. Your school is required by law to provide a safe learning environment that is not “hostile” to you, which includes creating an environment that’s free from violence, harassment, and intimidation.
- If you reported sexual assault or harassment and your school did not take it seriously, or has not done anything to make you feel safer, or made things worse for you at school, you could consider contacting one of our ENOUGH legal advocates.
2. Be told about your school’s policies on sexual assault and harassment — including how to report — in a way that you understand. The policy should tell you who to report to, and give you information about what could happen and what to expect of the school process after you report.
3. Talk to anyone you want about sexual assault or sexual harassment that happened to you. You also have the right to speak out against sexual assault or sexual harassment at your school, or to speak out against a school policy or practice that is harmful to survivors of sexual assault or harassment.
4. Report the sexual assault or harassment to a school official, including a professor, teacher, coach or faculty member. But be aware that if you tell a teacher, professor, coach, or school official about sexual assault or harassment, they are required, under other laws, to report it to a higher-up person at your school. If you do choose to report, we recommend reporting in writing (email or letter) and making copies for yourself. (For more on how to report sexual assault or harassment in writing, see the What Can I Do? section below.)
5. Report it without telling the assailant or harasser in advance. You do NOT have to tell the person who sexually assaulted or harassed you that you are going to report it to your school or that you are going to file a Title IX complaint. You do not even have to tell them after you report them or file the complaint, but they will find out if the school opens an investigation, so be prepared. The school has a legal obligation to let them know that a complaint was made against them and to collect their statement and/or answers to any questions the school may have in its investigation.
6. Warn the assailant that you are considering filing a Title IX complaint. It is OK to “threaten” reporting and then decide not to report if you are satisfied that the assailant’s harassing has stopped or if you change your mind about reporting. You are not obliged to report just because you told your peers that you might report. But again remember, many school employees are “mandated reporters,” so they will be required to report once aware of what happened.
7. Have your Title IX complaint taken seriously and investigated by your school. Once your school is aware of the sexual assault or sexual harassment, the law requires them to (1) take quick action to stop the harassment or assault if it is ongoing, and (2) provide protection for you if necessary. Protection could include issuing a “no-contact order”— which is like the school-version of an unofficial temporary restraining order— against the person who sexually assaulted or harassed you.
- Note: A no-contact-order issued by a school is not a legal document, and it is not enforceable by a court of law or by police who are not campus police.But it is an official school document and is enforceable by the school and/or campus police under the school’s misconduct policies.
- Be aware: Investigations usually include the investigator interviewing the person who sexually assaulted or harassed you, and they will know that you are the one who reported them. If you think knowing this will make the person dangerous, be sure to tell your school and also make clear that you expect the school to take immediate actions to help you feel safe. The investigation will also include interviewing you in detail about the incident(s), and could involve interviews with potential witnesses. Usually, but not always, a school asks for a list of potential witness from both the student who complained (the “complainant”) and the student accused of the harassment or assault (the “respondent”). The school may also interview individuals not on either student’s witness list whom the school believes might be important to talk to.
8. If your school does any of the following after you report, you have the right to seek legal action against the school:
- if they ignore you
- if they don’t investigate
- if they don’t offer you protection when you need it
- if they treat you badly after you report, for example making you feel like it was your fault, like you are lying, or that you are overreacting
- if the school has created a dangerous situation for you or other students by inviting or keeping a serial assailant on campus
If your school did any of these things to you, we may be able to help. Learn more about our Learn more about our ENOUGH program, which provides free, confidential legal advice.
9. Participate in a Title IX investigation or be a witness for someone else. Whether it’s an investigation into something that happened to you, or to someone else, you have a right to participate without barriers or retaliation — even if the claims end up being dismissed, or the investigation determines that sexual assault or harassment didn’t occur.
10. To make a police report or seek other civil remedies. You have the right to report conduct that is a crime (such as harassment or assault) to law enforcement if you want to. You are not required to do so in order to file a Title IX complaint. You can use the civil (non criminal) court system to obtain a restraining order or sue your assailant for money. Your school cannot attempt to stop you from asserting any of these legal rights, or to force you to do so.
11. To do nothing. It is a perfectly acceptable choice to do nothing about the assault or harassment you experienced. It is 100% your decision whether or not to come forward about your experiences.
If your rights were violated and you’d like to speak to a legal advocate about your options for taking action, apply for free legal help using this form.
What can I do?
If you or someone you know was sexually assaulted or sexually harassed, here are some things you could do. Remember: It is normal to be afraid or worried about reporting sexual assault or sexual harassment. Do what is right for you. These are just examples of some options you have.
1. Talk to an ENOUGH legal advocate. We provide free, confidential legal advice and help. Fill out our online application form to request a phone appointment with an ENOUGH advocate, attorneys who are here for you and can give you free legal information, tell you what your rights and options are, and potentially provide legal representation.
- Note: At this time, we are only able to help with incidents that occurred at California colleges (or other CA higher education institutions).
2. Look at your school’s policies on sexual misconduct and the Title IX complaint process. Most schools have a Student Handbook or Code of Conduct. You may have received it when you started at the school, and it may be available on your school’s website. Look through these policies to figure out what options you have. The policy should include information about how to report the misconduct (sexual assault or harassment). If it looks like your school does not have policies at all, or if you think their policies do not meet the requirement of Title IX, please contact us. Not having policies, or having legally inadequate policies, is a violation of Title IX. If you are looking into the policies of a K-12 school, our checklist might help you evaluate your schools policies and the accessibility of those policies.
3. Write everything down. If you are thinking of filing a Title IX complaint, you should write down what happened as soon as you can so you don’t forget any details. This step may be very difficult, but it is recommended so you can protect yourself during an investigation and in the months that follow the harassment or assault.
Note: It is very normal for a person who has experienced such harm, especially sexual violence, to have trouble remembering things in order, to sometimes remember only some parts of what happened, etc. This is a protective response the brain has to to help protect a person who has experienced trauma. If you write things down, as much and as soon as you can, this will help you have the information you need as you move forward, even if your mental and emotional needs make remembering the exact chronology of events difficult as time goes.
- Save any emails, texts, letters, or messages from the person who assaulted or harassed you, or any messages or emails you sent to someone else about the incident.
- Write down what happened to you, including dates and times, where it occurred, what exactly was done and said, and the names of any potential witnesses from during, before, or after the incident. Include as much detail as possible. If you’re comfortable doing so, ask any witnesses to write down what they saw or heard.
- Keep notes of any meetings you have with school officials. Record the time, date, and places of the meetings, who was there, and what was said.
- Keep copies of all documents, emails, or letters regarding your report, the investigation, the Title IX complaint, and any other related files, including copies of your responses.
If you think your school retaliated against (punished or intimidated) you for reporting, keep detailed notes of every action that happened, including who, when, where, and any witnesses to the retaliatory actions or threats.
4. Report the sexual assault or harassment to a school official. Try to find contact information for your school’s Title IX Coordinator. If you can’t find it, ask a trusted teacher, your RA, academic adviser, or guidance counselor. But remember: If you tell a teacher, professor, advisor, or counselor about sexual assault or sexual harassment occurring, they’re required by law to report it to a school official.
- If you do want to officially report and have the school investigate, we recommend submitting your report in writing, whether it’s an email or letter that you give to the Title IX coordinator in-person. Be sure to keep copies for yourself. This report should include detail of what happened, including the date and time, place, and who was involved.
- If you report orally (not in writing) in-person or on the phone, we recommend sending a follow-up email or letter confirming what happened during the conversation. For example:
- Dear [name of Title IX coordinator or school official], I’m writing to confirm that we met/talked on the phone today, 2023, to discuss the fact that I was sexually assaulted/ sexually harassed by [name] on 2023. You told me that you would [what they said they would do] by 2023. Thank you for taking the time to meet with me about this issue. Please let me know if you have any further questions for me and what you expect the timeline of your investigation to be. [Your name]”
5. If you reported sexual assault or harassment to your school and you were ignored or mistreated, you could seek legal action. If your school ignored you, tried to get you to “drop it,” did not tell you about your right to file a Title IX complaint, made you feel bad for reporting, did not investigate, took too long to investigate, or tried to blame you for the assault or harassment, they broke the law.
Download "Power of IX Checklist: K-12" PDF
What could happen?
The process at every school is different, and can even be different at campuses within the same university system, but most follow the same basic procedure:
1. Initial interview: Once you report the sexual assault or sexual harassment (known as “making a Title IX complaint”) the Title IX Coordinator, administrator, or school employee who is assigned and trained to handle Title IX investigations, should reach out to conduct an initial interview with you (as the victim of sexual assault or harassment, or as the person reporting something you witnessed or are worried about) to gain more information. This interview will form the basis of the complaint, so it is important to be as clear as you can, to include any detail you can remember, and to let the investigator know when you are unsure about something. It’s OK if you don’t know everything.
- At this point, a school official or the Title IX Coordinator should provide you with information about the investigation process, your rights, your options to request interim measures to help you feel safe and supported at school, and your right to have an advisor of your choice assist you. Other services that may be available to you that the school should tell you about include counseling and academic services. All of this information should be given to you at the initial meeting.
2. Investigator interviews: After the initial interview, an investigator may be assigned to your case. The other party (the person who harmed or harassed you or someone else) will be notified and interviewed. The investigator will then interview any witnesses and receive any evidence provided. If you have any questions about how the investigator will contact the person you are complaining about, it is OK to ask the investigator to explain it to you and tell the investigator about any concerns you might have.
3. Follow-up questions: The investigator might follow up with you if more questions come up during their investigation.
4. Evidence review (COLLEGE ONLY): Once the investigator completes the process of interviewing everyone involved, they will most likely send summaries of the witness statements and any evidence to both parties for the evidence review. This is your opportunity to correct anything misstated, to rebut (oppose) any false statements by the other party or their witnesses, or to comment on the relevance of evidence or why the investigator should not consider certain evidence.
5. Issuing a determination: Once the evidence review period is complete, the investigator (or a different school official) will make a determination as to whether or not the violation took place. This is based on a “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning that it is more likely true than not true that it occurred. If, by this standard, the school finds that the sexual assault or harassment occurred, it may recommend a sanction (a consequence for the person responsible).
6. Possible hearing (COLLEGE ONLY): Depending on what state you are in, whether your allegations include sexual violence, and whether the other party is a student or an employee, there may be a hearing after the determination is made. You may or may not have a right to appear at this hearing, and the other party may or may not have the opportunity to ask you questions about your allegations.
7. Option to appeal:
- College: Once a decision has been made about what happened and what disciplinary action should be taken, both parties typically have the right to appeal the decision to the Chancellor or some other officer at the school. Appeals are typically made because the disciplinary action taken by the school was not appropriate (either too big or too small), the evidence does not support the finding that was made, there was some procedural error in the investigation or hearing, and/or there is new evidence that should be considered which could change the outcome. The case might be sent back to the investigator to fix any errors that occurred, the decision could be overturned and replaced with a new decision, or the decision could be affirmed and kept in place.
- K-12: The structure of the appeal process differs by state. If you don’t like the outcome of the investigation, you should see if your school district has an appeal process, or you could appeal to a state entity, such as your state’s Department of Education.
- Note: At this time, we are only able to help with incidents that occurred at California colleges (or other CA higher education institutions).
Tools & resources
- Apply for free legal advice or counseling from one of our legal advocates (California higher education only)
- Stop Sexual Assault in Schools — website with more information and resources
- Power of IX Checklist — Is your school doing enough to help end sexual harassment and assault, and following Title IX?
- Ending Harassment Now — Our groundbreaking investigative report about widespread sexual violence and sexual assault in education – and schools failing to comply with Title IX requirements for all survivors’ equity.