MAXWELL:  Pity the schools in these litigious times

10/6/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Conservative pundits and sundry cynics smell blood. Their prey this time? Uptight public school bureaucrats who have let political correctness run amok, who do not know the difference between a young boy’s innocent peck on the cheek of a female classmate and an act of bona fide sexual harassment.

These critics fail to comprehend their sin: They are contributing to the devaluation of the nation’s public school system.

The cause celebres, or martyrs, are Johnathan Prevette, 6, a first-grader at Southwest Elementary School in Lexington, N.C., and De’Andre Dearinge, 7, a second-grader at New York’s Public School 104 in Far Rockaway. Both boys were suspended from school for “sexual harassment.”

Johnathan’s troubles started when he kissed a female classmate on the cheek. A teacher witnessed the act and reported it to the principal, who promptly suspended the boy for a day. Because he was absent from school, Johnathan missed an ice-cream party honoring pupils with good attendance and was prevented from coloring and playing with his friends.

Several hundred miles to the north, De’Andre became persona non grata after stealing a kiss and ripping a button off a girl’s skirt. Initially, he was given a five-day suspension. De’Andre said he kissed the girl because he likes her and wants to marry her. Okay, but why did he snatch the button? To pay tribute to his favorite fictional character, Corduroy, a teddy bear missing a button, he said.

Jackie Prevette, Johnathan’s mother, complained that her son’s punishment was too severe. After all, she saw his crime as nothing more than innocent smooching. Does the punishment _ in either boy’s case _ fit the crime? Should either child be charged with sexual harassment? Yes, said Southwest Elementary’s spokeswoman Jane Martin, referring to Johnathan. “A 6-year-old kissing another 6-year-old is inappropriate behavior. Unwelcome is unwelcome at any age.”

Martin spoke these brave words days before the satellite trucks began to arrive from as far away as Canada, New Zealand and Australia; before the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North, Kathie Lee Gifford and, of course, the local mayor got into the act. After the school received a bomb threat, officials decided that they, indeed, would be “working on an age-appropriate revision” of the sexual harassment policy.

In Far Rockaway, matters were just as bad for school officials. After De’Andre’s parents, the mayor and the ubiquitous press came calling, officials threw out the suspension and started meeting to reconsider their sexual harassment guidelines.

All right, so the boys’ parents got what they wanted. But what about the schools? What did they get? The nation’s public schools do a thankless, Herculean job. They are, in fact, acting in loco parentis. That is, acting in place of the parent. Each week day, for four to seven hours, school officials and teachers are responsible for every facet of their pupils’ lives, including the children’s right to be free from peer harassment.

Under Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972, moreover, school districts are liable if they fail to act in instances of “peer sexual harassment,” which is defined as “harassment that occurs during school activities or on school grounds by one student against another.”

Districts have latitude in interpreting the law, but they are required to have guidelines in place. In Johnathan’s case, his parents, like other parents at the school, had signed a document stating that they had read the school’s student handbook and had discussed the rules with their son.

The ugly truth is that public schools are held hostage by a litigious society that no longer supports the local schools. We come to school holding our children’s rights in one hand and our attorney’s business card in the other _ all the while demanding that staff protect, nurture and teach our little darlings. At the same time, though, we insist that our children enjoy every freedom and bask in self-esteem. In other words, we want it all.

School officials, far from being ogres, are victims who waste precious time seeking ways to stay out of court. On the one side of them stand the demands of the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights. On the other, parents and society wait in judgment, watching for a mistake.

As a former teacher, my biggest worry is that each time children are permitted to defeat teachers and administrators, each time a Jay Leno portrays teachers as fools, we further undermine the viability of public schools. We obliterate the necessary line between the child and adult authority. In effect, we force officials to overreact to protect themselves.

The wisest comments I have heard in this mess are those of Ellen Bravo, executive director of the 9 to 5 National Association of Working Women:

“Clearly, local school officials overreacted in describing Johnathan Prevette’s behavior as sexual harassment and punishing him for violating school rules. But the problem is the overreaction, not the rules. Can sexual harassment occur in elementary schools? It can, and it does. The degradation gets worse as kids get older _ not innocent adolescent flirting and kidding around, but demeaning and abusive behavior.”

Perhaps Bravo anticipated the case of Tianna Ugarte, now 14. When she was 11, a male classmate verbally and sexually harassed her. She and her parents complained to school officials and to the boy’s parents. But no one acted. A few days ago, a jury told the Antioch School District near San Francisco to pay Tianna $500,000.

How will Antioch officials react the next time a student accuses a peer of sexual harassment? Officials elsewhere should stay tuned. They have excellent cause to ask if a kiss is just a kiss or if a kiss _ in today’s litigious climate _ announces the beginning of big trouble around bend.