Wisconsin lawmakers seek to make sexual harassment in schools a felony

Bill would also expand protections that now exist for public school students to all those who attend private schools.

Updated: May 27, 2023 - 6:40am

Democratic state Reps. Tod Ohnstad and Tip McGuire are pushing legislation that would make it a felony for school staff or volunteers to create an intimidating or hostile environment by sexually harassing students.

In addition to seeking to close a gap in the state’s criminal statutes that currently do not extend to all variations of sexual misconduct that some students have faced in schools, the bill would expand protections that now exist for public school students to all those who attend private schools.

"Every child has the right to a safe learning environment regardless of what type of school they attend," Ohnstad said at a news conference in the state Capitol in Madison. "Protecting children from sexual misconduct is a shared responsibility of the community, schools and lawmakers."

The nonpartisan Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau reports that while the state presently does not have a law directly geared for sexual harassment in schools, federal law prohibits sexual harassment of students in all schools that receive funding from the federal government.

While such Title IX protections apply to all public schools, the reference bureau reports private schools are not part of the mix. For the purposes of the policy, sexual harassment is defined as “unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient's education program or activity.”

With Sen. Jesse James of Altoona and Rep. John Spiros of Marshfield, both Republicans, also joining McGuire and Ohnstad in pushing the measure, the bill would also require law enforcement officers or public employees to notify the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) about the alleged violation.

In any instances where a school employee is convicted of certain felony crime against children, DPI would automatically be required to revoke the teaching license of the staffer involved.