CHICAGO -- The young woman ignored the school principal's voicemails asking her to meet for cocktails. Her eventual reply, after persistent text messages that included explicit sexual requests and a photo of his private parts, was emphatic: "LEAVE ME ALONE!!"
By the time she had gotten 40 texts and phone messages from the principal in five days, the woman, who had met the principal during a college internship, was not merely fed up, but afraid. She turned to her mother, her pastor and his wife for advice.
"Get the bastards," the woman recalled her mother saying. "Go to police."
The principal, John Steinert, of Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest, Ill., pleaded guilty in May 2009 to misdemeanor harassment, stemming from those messages. The once-popular educator in the affluent northern suburb resigned this month amid an angry outcry from parents after the Chicago Tribune revealed details of the case.
As astonishing as those details are, the real wonder is that the young woman -- now a 25-year-old married law student -- came forward at all.
At a time when college students are eager to land jobs in a down economy, and when workplace sexual harassment laws are generally weaker for interns, experts say the sexual harassment of interns often goes unreported, and even unrecognized.
Many colleges and companies offering internships are working to educate employers and students about the problem, especially young people, who may have a naive understanding of what's appropriate in work settings.
"I don't think people know how scary it is to come forward," said the former intern, who asked not to be identified to protect her family's privacy. "I would like this to be an eye-opening experience for the community and also people in this situation."
Data on the prevalence of sexual harassment against interns are scarce. But in one 1994 study of incidents among interns working in mass communications, 49 percent of those questioned said they had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment.
Cases go undocumented for several reasons.
First, interns feel inferior in the workplace. They're often paid little -- if at all -- and report to multiple superiors. With future jobs at stake, interns experiencing harassment may brush off inappropriate behavior in the hope of getting hired.
"It's really a sticky situation for interns," said Robert Rubin, associate professor of management at DePaul University. "Why would they want to do anything to rock the boat?"
MaryBeth Lipp, a former Northwestern University student, co-wrote an article in the Harvard Women's Law Journal in which she detailed her experiences with harassment during a three-month internship at a broadcast news station during her senior year.
One person told her that the men in the office had determined she was "the dream score"; others suggested she "get together" with another woman and asked if they could watch, Lipp wrote in the 2000 article.
"As an intern, I felt vulnerable, fearful, disrespected, alone and powerless, especially when the harassment began during my first weeks at the station," wrote Lipp, who could not be reached for comment. "As time went on, I lost confidence in my work and even began to dread going to the station, but the intensity of the situation silenced my complaints. ... I knew I wielded no power in this situation."
Jamie Dolkas, a staff attorney at San Francisco-based Equal Rights Advocates, said the nonprofit gets calls from female interns across the county seeking free legal advice.
"There's a lot of apprehension," she said. "They're the lowest on the totem pole, and they're often the most vulnerable."
She encouraged interns to report harassment, at minimum on their internship evaluations.
"Get the word out in the open if they don't handle the situation well, and let other students know they shouldn't do their internship there because they don't take sexual harassment seriously," Dolkas said.
In the Lake Forest intern's case, she said she hesitated to report the harassment because "I worried about my reputation" and was trying to focus on her future and applying for law school.
"I wasn't sure what to do," she said. "I asked friends who previously did the internship. They said, 'No, don't get anyone in trouble.' "
When interns do find the courage to report sexual harassment, they can run into another setback: Laws are hazy on whether interns can bring their cases to court, experts say.
Under sexual harassment law, a person alleging workplace harassment must file a lawsuit against the employer, not the offender, said Aaron Maduff, senior partner at Maduff and Maduff in Chicago.
There's the question of whether interns are considered employees in the eyes of the law, especially when they're unpaid.
Despite such challenges, Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, advises interns not to put up with any harassment and to contact a lawyer when appropriate.
"Even if they don't have a legal right to damages, nobody should have to suffer harassment," he said.
To that end, several groups aim to help interns go into workplaces well aware of how they deserve to be treated.
Scott Chesebro is executive director of Chicago Center, a Hyde Park-based group that places dozens of students each year in internships throughout Chicago.
"As internship supervisors, we tell them if there's anything at their site that makes them feel uncomfortable, we want to know about it," Chesebro said.
The students keep regular journals, which helps bring any potential problems to the staff's attention early on, and many of them are placed with organizations with a strong underlying social justice mission, he said.
Before they begin an internship, students at Sweet Briar College, a small, all-women liberal arts school in central Virginia, must sign a form that defines harassment and includes a long list of examples, including unwanted sexual advances, comments, pictures, threats or demands.
"Sexual harassment and discrimination are UNACCEPTABLE in any form," the form reads.
At Ithaca College in New York, nearly 600 business and communications students are required to attend training on sexual-harassment issues before heading out to internships. The training educates students about inappropriate behavior directed toward them and explains how their actions could inadvertently invite harassment, said Traevena Byrd, associate counsel for the college.
Byrd tells students, for example, that pulling up a Facebook page at the office that shows photos from a girls' night out might send an unwelcome invitation to a potential offender.
"Students nowadays ... it's safe to say that standards have shifted and there's a higher degree of comfort in the things that people will say and do online, which isn't always appropriate for the workplace," Byrd said.
Lake Forest College, which placed the woman harassed by Steinert in her internship with the Lake Forest Police Department, has put future internships at the department on hold pending further evaluation, college spokeswoman Liz Libby said.
Students at the college are directed to sign a statement about harassment before starting their internship, and if they experience any harassment during their internship, they are encouraged to inform the college immediately, Libby said.
"The college would actively support any student in such a situation," she said.
No student, including the woman who interned with Lake Forest police, has ever reported to the college having experienced sexual harassment at an internship, Libby said. Steinert's victim reported the harassment to the Gurnee Police Department, whose investigation led to the charges against Steinert. Gurnee police did not notify the college about the case, Libby said.
Now that her story is out, the former intern said she is glad that by coming forward, others in similar situations might be inspired to do the same. She's also glad to see that Steinert -- more than three years after his harassment began -- is now suffering further consequences of his actions.
"It's about time," she said.
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