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Sexual Harassment in California Higher Education

California has an extensive private and public university system, with the University of California alone home to more than 200,000 students at one time and more than 190,000 faculty and staff. Recent cases of reported sexual harassment in the University of California system, along with a report issued by the system's president Janet Napolitano, highlight the pervasiveness of sexual harassment on college campuses.

Applicable California Law

California sexual harassment law covers incidents involving supervisors and coworkers, including harassing behaviors such as comments, sending explicit photos, unwanted touching, and other actions. It also covers quid pro quo harassment, in which the harasser offers something in return for sexual favors, such as a promotion or keeping one's job. The California Civil Code also explicitly mentions teachers as part of a group of professionals who are liable for behavior that is deemed to be sexual harassment. This is in acknowledgement of the inherent power difference between students and teachers. The question then is not whether sexual harassment law in California protects students, university workers, and professors against sexual harassment, but rather how the universities deal with such actions in order to protect those under its auspices.

The Pervasiveness of the Problem

In late February 2017, the University of California released a report detailing 113 cases of sexual misconduct that involved staff and faculty over a three-year period. More than half of the cases involved complaints from staff members, and 35 percent came from student complaints. The vast majority of these cases involved sexual harassment, with a smaller percentage involving claims of sexual assault. Critics of the system claim that the university does not take these cases seriously enough.

As an example, in March 2017, a Berkeley graduate sued the University of California over allegations that she was harassed by a professor. Her allegations include incidents in which the professor for whom she was a research assistant groped her, said they would become lovers, and then docked her pay and fired her because she rejected his advances. This case is only one of many that are currently in the California courts or that have recently resulted in settlements or jury awards for victims.

What Should You Do?

If you believe you have been the victim of sexual harassment at a California university, you should hire an experienced attorney. While the University of California system has taken further steps to try and prevent the problem, once you have been sexually harassed you need someone with experience in California law on your side. It does not matter is you are a student, research assistant, university worker, or college professor, California law protects you against this type of behavior.

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