HIghlights

Click to watch the show, which aired February 20  

PBS's NOW collaborates with the Schuster Institute in presenting an unprecedented broadcast investigation into the sexual harassment of teens in the workplace.

A shocking statistic—teenagers are in more danger from sexual predators at their part-time jobs than through the Internet. It’s a vastly underreported phenomenon, but some brave young women are stepping up publicly to tell their stories.

On February 20, 2009, PBS’s NOW and the Schuster Institute presented a first-time broadcast investigation of teen sexual harassment in the workplace.

Research site about sexual harassment of teens at work
More resources may be found at Sexual Harassment of Teens at Work>

Click to download a PDF version of the article
Click on the image to download a PDF of the original story.

Is Your Daughter Safe at Work?

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Note: Below you will find an expanded version of this Good Housekeeping article that includes additional information and links to the original research and resources.

By E.J. Graff
Senior Researcher
Gender & Justice Project
Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism

At first, 16-year-old Maureen Smith1 loved her job at UltraStar Cinemas' Poway10 theater. It was fun to see movies for free, and she liked goofing around with the other kids at the theater, and feeling just that much more grown up. Maureen's parents had been pleased when she'd told them she wanted an after-school job so she could earn her own spending money. At the time, Maureen was a high school junior who not only earned academic awards, but played lacrosse and ran cross-country. Her mother, Katherine, felt her daughter could handle the new responsibility: "She was very disciplined," Katherine recalls.

A few weeks after Maureen started working at the San Diego-area theater, Dan Wooten, 32, was brought in to become general manager—and everything changed. “Dan had an air about him that was really intimidating,” Maureen said. His language was foul—“I heard words out of him that I’d never heard from anyone in my entire life”—and his favorite topic was sex. He would describe his own sex life in disturbingly graphic detail. He would point out customers and ask the girls who worked at the theater whether they'd want to have sex with those men. And he showed them the pornographic magazines in the office that he had stashed in the box office.

These men are seeing how much they can get away with, pushing further each time.

Dan wasn't the only problem. The assistant manager, Adam Gustafson, physically harassed Maureen and the other girls. He'd grab them abruptly, twisting their arms, bending them into painful positions, then put them into arm locks—restraint holds that he said he was practicing so he could get into the police academy. Or he'd come up from behind, tilt their stools back suddenly so they'd be terrified they'd hit the floor, then catch them against his hips.

But for Maureen, the worst part was that Dan kept scheduling her to work at night—in the box office, often alone with him. There, he'd make sexually provocative remarks, such as telling her he liked the way her hips moved when she walked. He'd also touch her, rubbing her flat stomach admiringly or taking her wrist and commenting on how "little" it was. When she cut her hair, he got extremely upset, and said that women were sexier with long hair and that cutting it was a “sin.”

Although Maureen found it embarrassing and degrading to have Dan treat her this way, she tried to ignore it, hoping that would make it stop. She also felt confused. From time to time, other managers came through the theater, and she and Lindsay would try to tell them what was happening. But the managers merely shrugged. Maureen became afraid of not being taken seriously. “I just thought that was how the real world was,” she says.

The Dangerous Boss


Many parents worry about the threat of sexual predators on the Internet, and try to monitor their children's online activity. That threat is real. But teens are far more likely to encounter a predator on the job.

So far, there have been no comprehensive studies on precisely how large the problem is. But a 2005 study by professors Susan Fineran, University of Southern Maine, and James E. Gruber, University of Michigan at Dearborn, reported that 46 percent of teenage girls in their small sample had been sexually harassed; if you exclude babysitting and count only girls earnings wages in the mainstream economy, a full 52 percent have been sexually harassed. Three percent had been victims of sexual assault, attempted assault, or rape.2 And lawyers for the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) say they've been receiving an increase (in both number and severity) in teen sexual harassment3 complaints over the past several years, all over the country. Because of this spike, the EEOC has launched an unprecedented national educational initiative aimed at teens and their employers called Youth at Work.4 

Among these high school girls, 52 percent had been sexually harassed, and 3 percent had suffered sexual assault, attempted assault, or rape.

Although the Maine study was small, the numbers are not surprising. Other research has shown that the younger the worker and the lower she is in the hierarchy, the more likely she is to be harassed.5 And the numbers are in line with the research on workplace sexual harassment of adult women. Perhaps the most definitive such studied, a 1994 survey of adult women working in federal agencies, found that 44 percent of women in the agencies had unwanted sexual attention on the job, with 4 percent of women (and 2 percent of men) subjected to actual or attempted rape or sexual assault.6 

Most teens work. In 2003, nearly 3 million high school students worked full or part-time, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Add in summer jobs, and take in teens’ entire high school careers, and “the percentage of teens who work at some point during their high school years surpasses 80 percent.”7 Most teenagers work in low-wage restaurant, retail, or service jobs, where they're likely to be overseen by transient supervisors or managers who are themselves poorly trained, low-skilled, and poorly paid. Their bosses too often ignore sexually tinged behavior, dismissing it as harmless flirtation. But it's not flirtation when adult men talk about sex to teenage girls (or boys), comment on their bodies, or grab, grope, or proposition those high school students regularly. Psychologists who specialize in sexual predators describe this as “grooming” behavior: These men are seeing how much they can get away with, pushing further each time.

Managers who dismiss such behavior are ignoring the law. In most states, if sexual harassment includes unwanted touch, it could be a criminal offense—for which the individual harasser can be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed. And under federal law, it's a civil offense for which the employer can be sued. Most states and municipalities have additional laws on the books that safeguard employees.

Managers who dismiss such behavior are ignoring the law.

If bosses won't protect underage workers, then parents must. That means alerting your child to the risks when she starts hunting for her first job (see the sidebar, "How to Prepare and Protect Your Child") and staying watchful once she starts working.

This goes for sons as well as daughters. Although girls are more vulnerable, boys can be victims, too, as evidenced last September when Representative Mark Foley of Florida was caught sending suggestive e-mails and sexually explicit instant messages to male congressional pages.8 

Afraid to Talk Back

In the Foley case, it was a young page who blew the whistle. But it's rare for teens to come forward. A part-time job is usually their first foray into the adult world, and they're eager to appear grown-up, responsible, able to handle whatever happens.

What's more, predators often target the polite, obedient, well-behaved "good girls," explains Christine Nicholson, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Albuquerque, NM, who specializes in adolescent girls and sexual trauma.9 "These are the ones who say, 'Please, can I do anything for you?' "Predatory men know they can manipulate these girls—and that, like Maureen, they're likely to respond with silence.

Predators often target the "good girls"—the ones most likely to remain silent.

Not that the system makes it easy for young victims to speak up. Federal sexual harassment law allows any employee to file a complaint, but it doesn't make any special allowances for teenagers. A lawsuit is stronger if a victim has complained—if not to the harasser, then at least to her supervisor, to the human resources department, or to another designated person. But most teenagers hesitate to speak up too forcefully. “They’re used to doing what mom and dad said, they’re used to doing what teachers said, they’re used to doing what coach said,” explains Jennifer Drobac, an Indiana University law professor and former employment attorney.10 "Yet the legal system expects them to confront their first workplace authority figure, and say, ‘That’s completely inappropriate conduct on your part.’ Well, in any other setting, that could get them a detention, a week being grounded, or time out.”

Drobac believes that this is unrealistic from a legal system that “often treats minors as lacking capacity for many things: driving, drinking, voting, access to some kinds of medical attention without parental permission.” If these young people were groped by a coach after soccer practice, parents would demand the coaches’ firing. Why shouldn’t employers be held more responsible for those teens’ protection than they are for adults—the way we hold childcare centers, schools, and other youth organizations especially responsible for screening out harassers and predators?

In 2002, at age 17, Deborah Healy started her first job, as a cashier at a Springfield, Illinois Burlington Coat Factory—where she found it very hard to stand up for herself. The shoe department manager “was really friendly,” she said, repeatedly asking her personal questions that made her uncomfortable. And one time, when she was alone with him in a locked room as he counted out her cash drawer, he insisted that she sit on his lap. "I just did it. I sat on his leg, really lightly, for a second and then ran to the other side of room. I thought that was my only option.”

Why shouldn’t employers be held responsible for those teens’ protection—the way we hold schools and youth organizations responsible for screening out harassers and predators?

Yet a month later, when a higher-up manager told her that the man was being fired tor sexual harassment, and asked Deb whether she had anything to tell them, she was reluctant to talk about the incident. “I didn’t want to be the one to ruin his life,” she explains. That may sound strange, but Deb was young, so ashamed of the encounter that, like many unprepared girls, “I sort of felt really responsible for what had happened.”

A girl may also worry about losing her job. Natoshia Hennekin worked at a Burger King in Peerless Park, Mo., as part of a school-based work-study program. A senior in high school, she not only got paid for her hours, she earned credits toward graduation. Every day after morning classes, Natoshia and her friend Bethany11 headed to work.

Almost immediately, their shift manager Nathan Kraus started to annoy them. Some of it was verbal—for example, asking them daily to head out to the Dumpster with him for sex. Or if one of them was kneeling down to wipe the floor, he'd say things like, "As long as you're down there, you can do me a favor."

The girls felt desperate: Wherever they turned, they were being blamed—not the manager who was tormenting them.

But Nathan also got physical, swiping their breasts and bottoms with his hand as he walked by. One day, Nathan pinned Bethany against a wall, groping her breasts and rubbing against her—and walked away only after Natoshia spotted and yelled at him. Another day, Natoshia bent over to get barbeque sauce, with a customer standing on the other side of the counter—only to have Nathan start “bumping and grinding on my butt.” Not long after, he pinned and groped Natoshia in the same kitchen nook—and, once again, stopped only when someone spotted and shouted at him. Still, she and Bethany felt they had to get along with him. "Our graduation depended on this job," says Natoshia. "We couldn't quit. We couldn't get fired.

Unbeknownst to Natoshia and Bethany, Nathan was also propositioning, threatening, groping, and assaulting girls on other shifts. Experts say that this pattern is almost always serial behavior.

Getting Someone to Listen

Nevertheless, Natoshia wasn't afraid to confront her boss. Over and over, she told him to cut it out. "You need to stop saying this stuff to me because I find it really disgusting," she said. Within a week, she and Bethany reported him to a higher-up manager. The girls didn't know it at the time, but others had complained as well. Yet, incredibly, the manager "didn't seem to believe us," says Natoshia.

After that, she and Bethany found a Burger King internal complaint hotline. The man who answered the phone, says Natoshia, “basically called me and Bethany whores. Told us maybe that we were taunting him with our body language and the way we were wearing our uniforms.”

The girls despaired: wherever they turned, they were being blamed, not the creep who was tormenting them.

Natoshia began to fall apart. When she first arrived at Burger King, she says, she had “long, long, long, dishwater-blond hair. I was proud of my hair. I used to brush it nonstop.” That stopped when she literally couldn’t get Nathan out of her hair. “He would come up to me and twirl his fingers around my hair. He even chewed on my hair, and even smelled my hair. It was gross. And he had this horrible, nasty body odor smell to him. I was washing my hair nonstop because I could constantly smell him. I don’t know if it was in my head or something, but I had the permanent smell of his nastiness in my nose. So I cut my hair off.”

Abruptly, that long blond hair was just below Natoshia’s ears, dyed a gloomier brown. “I didn’t wear makeup the way I used to. I didn’t dress up the way I used to. I even got piercings. I got a nose ring. I got a belly button ring. I got a tongue ring. Looking back, Natoshia sees that she was “screaming out for help, too afraid to ask out loud.” 

Finally, Bethany told her older sister, who got the girls an appointment with a lawyer. The appointment was scheduled for the morning, and Natoshia, ever the dutiful girl, did not want to miss school without a parent's note. So she finally told her mom what had been going on. “And she hugged me and told me she was sorry this happened to me. She was more scared and worried than angry. It felt really, really good that someone listened to us and believed us."

The lawyer took the case. The EEOC, after investigating and concluding that the law had been violated, filed a lawsuit, with seven girls as plaintiffs. In December 2004, Midamerica Hotels Corporation and Northwest Developmjent Company, which operated that Burger King (along with 37 others), settled for $400,000 in damages.

But the girls didn't feel vindicated. Although the company had to agree to EEOC oversight for two years, there was no admission of wrongdoing. Nathan Kraus had been allowed to resign earlier, and one of the assistant managers, while initially reprimanded, was later promoted to manager. (Then, as part of the settlement, he was required to go for sexual harassment-awareness training.)

The legal process itself was brutal. During the mediation talks, Nathan would stare the girls down. When the groups went into separate rooms as part of the talks, he would pace the hall just outside the girls' room, smirking at them.

The legal process itself was brutal.

Today, Natoshia is still struggling and has dropped her plans to go to nursing school. Since high school, she has held a series of jobs. She says that, although she was once friendly and outgoing, she now has no boyfriend and few girlfriends. "Once something like this happens, it changes your whole perspective on everything," she says.

The Best Way to Stop It

Maureen Smith's problems at the movie theater got worse before they got better. After Maureen began dating Travis, an 18-year-old student whom she'd met through her church group and who had also worked at the theater, Dan Wooten became even more lewd. Dan repeatedly threatened to call the police and say “that he had seen me and Travis having sex in a car and that Travis would be arrested for statutory rape,” Maureen says. “He asked me if I was a virgin, and I wouldn't answer him. And I asked him why he was asking me, and he said, and I quote, ‘Men f--- with their penis and women f--- with their heart,’ and so if I had sex with Travis, it would break my heart and he wouldn't care.”

Five years later, telling this story still made Maureen break down crying. When asked whether she felt that Dan was singling her out to be his, she said, “I was pretty sure, but at the same time, I wasn’t sure. Because he was like 32 and I was 16, and it was like: I must be misinterpreting the situation because this actually can’t be what’s going on.” All the older men she’d known were like her father or her teachers: trustworthy authority figures whom she obeyed with affection and respect. And so Maureen started to feel ill whenever she had to go into work.

Then one night, Maureen came home late and thought she spotted Dan's car on her street. As the garage door closed, her cell phone rang. It was Dan. He asked where she'd been, what she'd been doing, and why she was getting home so late. He'd become a stalker.

As her garage door closed behind her at 2 a.m., her cell phone rang. Her boss had become her stalker.

But it took a serious injury before Maureen and Lindsay finally broke down and told their parents what they'd been going through. Lindsay needed emergency medical treatment because Adam, the assistant manager, dislocated her shoulder when he pulled her into one of his arm holds—in horseplay, he later claimed. The parents reported the men to the local police. But when no charges were filed, Maureen, Lindsay, and two other girls brought a civil lawsuit against UltraStar Cinemas' management.

Following an eight-week trial, in April 2005, a jury found unanimously in the girls’ favor, and awarded $850,000 for emotional distress and another $1.5 million each in punitive damages—a total of $6.85 million. That July, letting the verdict stand, the judge threw out the damage award as excessive, and ordered a new trial on the monetary issue only. The case is now on appeal in the California courts. But the finding of harassment is not in question.

Today, Maureen is about to graduate from college. Talking about what she and Lindsay went through can still bring her to tears. But the girls decided to tell their story, they say, to prevent the same thing from happening to other girls.

"If he's doing it to you, he's doing it to someone else," said one plaintiff.

As a result of her ordeal, Mareen has decided to become a lawyer, specializing in sexual harassment cases. “The best way to stop it,” she explains, “is to make companies realize they need to take action against it. And the best way to do that is through the legal process.”

She knows the work won't be easy, but she remembers clearly what kept her going during the traumatic litigation and its aftermath. “Every time I wanted to stop,” said Maureen, “I was just like thinking about the fact that Dan might go back—and that there might be other Dans out there doing it right now.”


Footnotes

[1] Name changed to protect privacy.

[2] "Sexual harassment and teens at work," Susan Fineran, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Southern Maine, School of Social Work, and James E. Gruber, Professor of Behavioral Sciences, University of Michigan - Dearborn. Fineran surveyed 260 students in a small, Catholic suburban high school for girls in New England; 58 percent of these worked part-time. More than 52% of the teens reported that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment during the past year at their jobs. Five percent reported they had been sexually coerced at work. For more information, contact Susan Fineran by email. 

[3] Find the government's legal definition of what constitutes "sexual harassment," for the purpose of bringing a lawsuit, here. For a flow chart showing the complex legal process of a discrimination lawsuit, click here.

[4] For more information, see the EEOC's website Youth at Work.

[5] See "Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace," Meredith A. Newman, Robert A. Jackson, Douglas D. Baker, Public Administration Review, July/August 2003, Vol. 63, No. 4.

[6] See "Sexual Harassment in the Federal Workplace," a report to the President and Congress by the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board.

[7] According to the Committee on the Health and Safety Implications of Child Labor, in a study chartered by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health).

[8] Click here for the Wikipedia entry on the Mark Foley scandal.

[9] Click here for the website of Christine Nicholson, Ph.D.

[10] Click here to find Jennifer Drobac, Indiana University law professor.

[11] Name changed to protect privacy.