ESA – Harassment and sexual harassment in education

Your Rights

Fact sheets

Under the Equal Status Acts 2000-2018 (ESA) , it is unlawful to harass or sexually harass anyone in a school, college, university or other educational establishment. This covers students, prospective students and anyone with a right to be on campus.

Please note that if you are an employee of a school, college, university or other educational establishment, and you believe that you have been the victim of harassment or sexual harassment, the applicable law is set out in the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015.

For more information on the rights of employees, see our factsheet on harassment and sexual harassment at work .

The ESA treat harassment and sexual harassment separately, as they are defined by different criteria.

  • Harassment involves one or more of nine protected grounds of discrimination listed below.
  • Sexual harassment involves conduct of a sexual nature and need not be related to the nine grounds of discrimination.

Sometimes you can be harassed and sexually harassed at the same time. If so, you can make a complaint about both – either separately or on the same complaint form.

In this guide, we use ‘school or college’ to cover any form of educational establishment, ranging from pre-school groups to universities and adult education classes.

What is harassment?

Harassment is any form of unwanted conduct that:

  • Is related to one of the nine protected grounds of discrimination, and
  • ‘Violates your dignity’ – that is, makes you feel degraded, unworthy or ashamed, and
  • Is intimidating, hostile, humiliating or offensive to you

Harassment can take the form of words, actions, pictures or other material. You can, for example, be harassed in person, in writing, by phone or online.

What are the nine protected grounds of discrimination?

  • Gender (male, female, transgender, pregnancy, or maternity leave)
  • Civil status (single, married, separated, divorced, widowed or in a civil partnership)
  • Family status (e.g. pregnant, parent or carer)
  • Sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual orientation)
  • Age (for people aged 18 or over)
  • Religious belief (including religious background and those who have no belief)
  • Membership of the Traveller community
  • Race (colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin)
  • Disability (intellectual, mental or physical)

For example: A teacher makes disparaging comments about a student’s religious beliefs during a class. The comments have the effect of violating the student’s dignity and makes them feel humiliated in front of their classmates. The teacher’s actions may amount to harassment on the protected ground of religious belief under the ESA.

What is the difference between harassment and bullying?

Harassment must be related to one or more of the nine protected grounds of discrimination. It can happen once or several times. For example, it may be harassment for a teacher or college lecturer to mock, bully or downgrade you because of your age, race, disability or any of the other characteristics listed above.

A person can be bullied for many reasons – it does not need to be linked to a protected ground. Complaints of bullying should be dealt with through the school’s internal process at first instance.

Further examples of Harassment

  • A college student is shamed for becoming pregnant after she returns to class.
  • A prospective student is told during an interview by a school principal that he might not be welcomed in the school as he is a member of the Traveller community.

What is sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment can mean any unwanted words or actions of a sexual nature which:

  • Deliberately or unintentionally ‘violate your dignity’ – that is, make you feel degraded
  • Cause you fear and shame (known as ‘creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment’ for you)

Sexual harassment need not be related to any of the nine grounds of discrimination. It can happen once or many times. It can involve physical touching, but it might not involve touching as it can take many other forms – such as written, spoken, in person or online. It can range from suggestive messaging to offensive gestures, sexist bullying, and can include sharing sexual images online.

What if the person harassing or sexually harassing me is of the same sex or gender as I am?

Sexual harassment can occur regardless of whether the sex or gender of the person harassing you is the same as or different from yours.

Do I need to show that the person harassing or sexually harassing me intended to violate my dignity?

A claim for harassment or sexual harassment will need to show either:

  • That the person responsible intended to make you feel afraid, degraded, humiliated or offended or
  • That their actions had that effect on you, even if you cannot prove their intentions.

Must I tell the person harassing me that I do not want them to do so?

No. The key issue is whether the conduct was unwanted. But you do not need to prove this by telling the person harassing you. You may well feel too intimidated to      tell them.

What is the responsibility of the school or college in cases of harassment or sexual harassment?

Those in charge, such as the headteacher, board of managers or university vice-principal, must not allow the harassment or sexual harassment of a student, member of staff or anyone else with a right to be there. They must take reasonable practical steps to prevent the harassment. For an example of how this looks in practice, see “How can a school or college defend itself against a complaint of harassment or sexual harassment?” below.

Where can I make a complaint about harassment or sexual harassment in education?

You can complain under the ESA to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). If you face harassment or sexual harassment because of your gender, you can choose to start a case in the Circuit Court instead of the WRC.

How do I choose which court to go to?

  • The Circuit Court deals only with cases of discrimination on the ground of gender.
  • If you win your case, the Circuit Court can order your respondent (the person you are making the complaint against or taking the case about) to pay your legal costs. The WRC does not have this power.
  • If you win your case, the Circuit Court can award you unlimited compensation. The WRC can award a maximum of €15,000.
  • A hearing at the WRC is likely to be less formal than at the Circuit Court.

What if I am employed at a school, university or other place of education?

If you are harassed or sexually harassed in the course of your employment, you can complain to the WRC under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2015 (EEA). You can find more details in our guide: Harassment and sexual harassment at work.

Who do I complain against?

You complain against the respondent – the person or organisation that you claim is responsible for harassing or sexually harassing you. In this context, the respondent is the school or college, because it has ‘vicarious liability’ for harassment or sexual harassment. This means it may be held legally responsible for harassment or sexual harassment carried out by someone working or studying there, such as a teacher, caretaker, contractor or student.

When making your complaint, you name either the establishment or its board of management. For advice on identifying the respondent, see our guide on taking a case to the WRC.

Must I show that I have been treated differently from someone else?

No – in a case of harassment or sexual harassment you do not need a comparator. In other words, you do not      need to compare your treatment to anyone else’s (as you would in most other cases of discrimination). You just need to show that what happened to you was either sexual harassment or harassment related to a protected ground.

How can a school or college defend itself against a complaint of harassment or sexual harassment?

The school or college will need to show they have taken reasonable practical steps to prevent the harassment or sexual harassment. This can mean adopting a policy on harassment and making sure everyone on the premises is aware of it.

If they have no policy or measures in place to prevent harassment, they may be found liable for any harassment that occurs.

Example: Harassment of a student on the basis of sexual orientation?

A student complained of harassment at college on the ground of sexual orientation – in other words, he said he was harassed because he was gay. For instance, a teacher had called him ‘a little woman’ in front of his classmates. During a separate incident, a classmate had called him a homophobic slur and refused to apologise.

The college responded that its managers had investigated the case in line with their Safety Statement, on which all students had received training. They had discussed the incidents with those involved and disciplined the worst offender. The WRC concluded the college had taken reasonable steps to deal with the incidents and to uphold its policy on safety and equality.

What are the time limits for making a complaint?

Before contacting the WRC, you must notify the educational establishment you are complaining against. You must do this in writing within two months of when the harassment or sexual harassment last occurred. In your letter or email, set out details of what happened and state that you intend to take legal action if you receive no satisfactory response.

If you get no satisfactory reply within one month, then you should send the complaint form to the WRC within six months of when the harassment or sexual harassment last occurred.

Make sure you keep proof of posting and copies of all correspondence.

What if the harassment or sexual harassment is still going on?

A complaint must be filed at the WRC within six months of the last date of harassment and/or sexual harassment. In many cases, where just one act of harassment and/or sexual harassment occurred, it will be easy to determine when this six-month time period begins and ends. However, there will also be situations where harassment or sexual harassment occurs and is then repeated over a lengthy period, sometimes with a large gap between incidents.

In certain situations, the WRC may decide that all of the incidents are sufficiently linked, creating what is called a “continuum” of harassment. However, the key point is that even where a complainant believes there is continuing harassment and/or sexual harassment, it is important to institute a complaint as soon as possible, to avoid the risk of missing the six-month period to lodge the complaint.