Trivializing The Problem Of Sexual Harassment

Posted: October 03, 1996

Two weeks ago, 6-year-old Jonathan Prevette responded to a classmate's request for a kiss by pecking her cheek - a gesture that made him an instant celebrity.

Fame came knocking, thanks to the unfathomable thickheadedness of adults who run public schools in Lexington, N.C. They deemed the first-grader's kiss to be ``unwelcome touching'' in violation of the district's sexual harassment policy. Jonathan was suspended for a day and missed an ice cream party with his class.

Then the fun began: TV interviews. Calls from the ``Today Show,'' Rush Limbaugh and journalists from around the world. An offer of $100,000 for movie rights. Bingo!

So endeth another chapter in the continuing devolution of American culture, where Trivia Pays and Big Issues Get Ignored.

The issue here is sexual harassment among students - primarily at the middle and high school levels, where the hormonal upheavals of adolescence take hold.

And real sexual harassment in elementary school is not unheard of: In California, a 9-year-old girl opened her desk to find a note that read, ``I want to have sex with you. I love you babe . . . I want to have your kids.'' The 11-year-old author was suspended, forced to apologize in writing and transferred to another classroom.

Sexual harassment is far more common - and problematic - among older kids. The issue gained visibility when a 1993 study by the American Association of University Women found that 85 percent of girls in grades 8 to 11 - and 76 percent of boys - have been sexually harassed in school. More disturbing was the survey's conclusion: that many girls who are sexually harassed lose confidence in themselves, avoid speaking up in class or try to avoid school altogether.

So while punishing a 6-year-old for an innocent kiss is amusing and absurd, sexual harassment among adolescents is a serious and delicate matter.

It has to do with drawing a precise line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct, at a time when those definitions vary tremendously - on individual and community levels. It means being exact, in an era of variable manners and mores.

Is ``Hey, babe'' harassment - or a greeting? It depends on who's talking, and who they're talking to.

Federal law requires that school districts have policies on sexual harassment to prevent lawsuits and to qualify for federal funding.

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued guidelines defining sexual harassment of students by other students. The definition is necessarily broad: from explicit aggressiveness in the form of lewd comments or inappropriate touching - to more subtle harassment, such as persistent requests for dates or other overtures that make a student feel uncomfortable in the learning environment.

Some schools are conducting seminars to instruct students and staff on how to be respectful of others in the context of sexual harassment.

Philadelphia public school's sexual harassment policy is incorporated in the equal opportunity statement printed in the student handbook: ``Any employee or student who violates the policy against student harassment commits misconduct for which appropriate discipline may be imposed, up to and including termination for employees and expulsion for students.''

The most refreshing approach I've found to dealing with boys and kisses came from Marina, a first-grader in Dallas, Texas.

She's waiting until she's 17 to kiss a boy - a policy parents of adolescent girls will applaud. And if a boy steals a kiss before then? ``I would tell a teacher because sometimes I don't like boys because they're ugly,'' Marina said. ``But if they're cute I'd kiss him and not tell and keep it a secret because the moms might not let you be friends.''

In a culture awash in explicit sexual messages yet prudishly reluctant to teach its young where respectful affection ends and unwelcome harassment begins, Marina's solution seems about right.

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