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Does ABA Have a Sexual Harassment Policy?

Does ABA Have a Sexual Harassment Policy?

Let’s start with a question: have you ever felt uncomfortable, harassed, or demeaned in your workplace? If so, you’re not alone. Sexual harassment is alarmingly common across many industries and workplaces. But what constitutes sexual harassment exactly? And what can you do about it?We’re going to dive deep into the realities of sexual harassment, particularly in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). We’ll look at real-world examples, break down the legal jargon, and give you practical advice on your rights and options. It’s a heavy topic, but one that desperately needs to be addressed and understood.

What is Sexual Harassment?

First things first, let’s get on the same page about what sexual harassment actually means in a legal sense. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines it as:“Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”Seems pretty straightforward, right? Well, not always. Sexual harassment can take many forms, both overt and subtle. It could be:

  • Inappropriate touching
  • Comments about someone’s body or appearance
  • Sharing sexual images/videos
  • Making offensive jokes
  • Repeatedly asking a coworker out on dates

The key factor is that the behavior is unwelcome and creates an uncomfortable, hostile, or offensive situation for the victim. It doesn’t matter if the harasser was “just joking around” or “didn’t mean anything by it.” If their actions made you feel demeaned or threatened, that’s harassment.

Sexual Harassment in ABA

Now let’s zoom in on the field of Applied Behavior Analysis. ABA practitioners work closely with children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. The work is extremely hands-on and personal. So it’s crucial that proper boundaries are maintained to prevent any form of harassment or abuse.Unfortunately, there have been numerous cases of sexual harassment and assault reported in ABA settings over the years. Clients with limited communication abilities may act out in sexually inappropriate ways towards their therapists or technicians. Or staff members themselves could be the perpetrators, taking advantage of vulnerable individuals.The reality is, any situation where there is a power differential and close personal contact creates opportunities for harassment and abuse to occur. That’s why having clear anti-harassment policies and training is so vital in this field.

Professional Organization Policies

So what do the professional organizations have to say about it? Let’s take a look.

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board (BACB) Code of Ethics

The BACB is the credentialing organization for Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analysts (BCaBAs). In their Professional and Ethical Compliance Code, they state:“Behavior analysts do not engage in unfair discrimination based on age, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, culture, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, socioeconomic status, or any basis proscribed by law.”They also forbid “any kind of abuse towards clients” including “physical, psychological, sexual, verbal, emotional, or neglectful acts.”Violations of this code can result in disciplinary action, including loss of certification. However, the BACB does not have direct authority over the workplace policies of ABA providers and practices. That’s where other organizations come into play.

The Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI)

ABAI is the primary membership organization for behavior analysts worldwide. Their mission is to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis.Within their Statement on Harassment, they clearly state that ABAI “does not tolerate harassment in any form” at their events or within the communities they serve. They define harassment as:“Unwelcome speech or conduct that is based upon another individual’s protected status, such as gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, pregnancy, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, religion, or any other legally protected characteristics.”ABAI requires all members, event attendees, speakers, staff, contractors, exhibitors, and volunteers to abide by this anti-harassment policy. Violations can result in sanctions like:

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  • A warning
  • Temporary event expulsion
  • Permanent expulsion
  • Loss of membership
  • Being banned from future events

While this policy is a good start, it is limited in scope to ABAI’s own events and internal operations. It does not extend to regulating the workplace practices of ABA providers, which are instead governed by employment laws.

Legal Requirements

In the United States, sexual harassment in the workplace is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This landmark legislation made it illegal for employers to discriminate against employees on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin or religion.The EEOC has established that sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination under Title VII. This applies to:

  • Private sector employers with 15 or more employees
  • Most federal government agencies

Many states also have their own laws prohibiting sexual harassment, some of which apply to smaller employers as well. For example, the California Fair Employment and Housing Act covers all employers regardless of size.So from a legal standpoint, any ABA provider or practice with employees is required to maintain a workplace free from sexual harassment and discrimination. They must have policies and reporting procedures in place, provide training to staff, and promptly investigate any harassment complaints.Failing to do so can open them up to liability in the form of workplace lawsuits and penalties from government enforcement agencies. But having robust anti-harassment policies isn’t just about legal compliance – it’s also crucial for maintaining a safe, ethical, and productive work environment for staff and clients alike.

What an Anti-Harassment Policy Should Cover

Now that we understand the legal requirements, what should a comprehensive anti-sexual harassment policy for an ABA provider entail? At a minimum, it should include:

  • A clear definition of sexual harassment, with examples of prohibited conduct
  • Details on how to report harassment incidents, including multiple reporting channels
  • Assurances that complaints will be taken seriously and properly investigated
  • Protections against retaliation for reporting harassment
  • Disciplinary measures that will be taken against harassers, up to termination
  • Regular training requirements for all staff on the policy and harassment prevention

The policy should be distributed to all employees, prominently posted or published where staff can access it, and consistently enforced across the organization. Managers and supervisors must lead by example and be empowered to properly address harassment situations.Additionally, the policy should account for the unique nature of ABA therapy involving close personal interactions. Specific guidance on appropriate boundaries, both physical and verbal, should be provided. Protocols for handling sexually inappropriate client behaviors should also be included.

Real-World Examples

To really drive home the importance of having robust anti-harassment measures, let’s look at some real-world examples of sexual harassment and assault cases involving ABA providers:Example 1:
In 2021, a behavior technician in Tennessee filed a lawsuit alleging that her employer failed to protect her from repeated sexual harassment by a non-verbal teenage client. The client would allegedly grope and expose himself to the technician frequently during therapy sessions.When she reported the incidents to her supervisor, she claims she was told “that’s just what he does” and that she should continue working with the client. The lawsuit accused the provider of negligent supervision, emotional distress, and creating a hostile work environment.Example 2:
In another case from 2019, a former ABA therapist was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting two children under the age of 10 during in-home therapy sessions in New Jersey. According to the allegations, the therapist would isolate the children from their parents and assault them while their parents were in another room.These are just two examples that made headlines, but harassment and abuse can occur in more subtle ways as well:

  • Inappropriate comments about a staff member’s appearance
  • Unwanted physical contact under the guise of therapy techniques
  • Quid pro quo situations where promotions or assignments are conditioned on sexual favors

The point is, the risk is very real in this field. And the consequences of harassment go far beyond just legal liability. It can severely traumatize clients and their families, violate the public’s trust, and create a toxic workplace culture that drives talented staff away.That’s why having clear policies, training, reporting mechanisms and accountability measures is absolutely critical for any ABA provider that wants to operate ethically and avoid these kinds of nightmares.

What to Do If You Experience Harassment

Okay, so we’ve covered what sexual harassment is, the legal requirements to prevent it, and some real-world examples of why it’s so important to take this issue seriously in ABA settings. But what if you personally experience harassment – what are your options?

  1. Document everything. Keep a detailed record of each incident – what happened, who was involved, dates/times, any witnesses, etc. Save any inappropriate emails, texts, photos or other evidence.
  2. Review your employer’s harassment policy and follow the reporting procedures outlined in it. This usually involves reporting the harassment to:
    • A manager
    • HR representative
    • Ethics officer
    • Other designated point of contact

Provide them with the documentation you’ve collected.

  1. Participate in the investigation process. By law, your employer is required to promptly investigate the allegations in a fair and impartial manner. They should interview all parties and witnesses involved. You are entitled to participate.
  2. Watch for retaliation. It’s illegal for your employer to retaliate against you for reporting harassment in good faith. Forms of retaliation include:
    • Demotions
    • Pay cuts
    • Further harassment
    • Creating a hostile work environment
    • Termination

If retaliation occurs, report it immediately.

  1. File external complaints if needed. If your employer fails to properly address the harassment or retaliates, you can:
    • File a complaint with the EEOC or state fair employment agency
    • Consult an employment law attorney about filing a civil lawsuit

It’s understandable to feel scared or hesitant about reporting harassment, especially if the perpetrator is a client or authority figure. But keeping silent allows the abuse to continue. Speaking up protects you and prevents others from being victimized.No reputable ABA provider should tolerate any form of sexual harassment or discrimination. Maintaining a safe environment for staff and clients must be the top priority, with robust policies, training, reporting mechanisms and accountability measures in place.

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