Parents — lock up your sons and daughters! From grade school to grad symposiums, school corridors are more sexually dangerous than city streets.
That’s the message some parents will take away from two recent and closely connected events. It is a wrong message, based on fear mongering and bias rather than fact.
The two events: On Jan. 30, a 6-year-old Massachusetts schoolboy allegedly slipped two fingers into the back waistband of a female classmate who was in front of him in class; he said she’d poked him first. The school reported the boy to the police and the local district attorney’s office for sexual harassment.
Perhaps because Massachusetts’ criminal law does not apply to anyone under 7, no charges ensued. Instead, the boy was suspended from school for three days.
A week earlier, on Jan. 24, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Education Foundation released a report: "Drawing the Line: Sexual Harassment on Campus (2006)." The gist: despite decades of aggressive and hugely expensive anti-harassment campaigns, children have a 62 percent chance of suffering sexual harassment if they step onto a campus.
"Drawing the Line" continues a theme advanced by the AAUW in an earlier report "Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School" (2001). From elementary school onward, "Hostile Hallways" found 83 percent of girls and 79 percent of boys experienced sexual harassment.
Download file "5"
The AAUW usually follows such reports with policy recommendations or guidebooks that detail how to crackdown on harassers. For example, "Hostile Hallways" was followed by the 2003 guidebook "Harassment-Free Hallways."
The AAUW is widely credited with spreading awareness of and zero tolerance toward sexual harassment throughout the education system.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), thinks they should be credited with spreading gross misinformation and wholesale panic. Lukianoff attacks "Drawing the Line" (and other AAUW material) on the fundamentals. He rejects their definition of sexual harassment.
Lukianoff starts with the Department of Education’s definition: "unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature…so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it affects a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from an education program or activity, or creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment."
This is a legal definition which many, like me, would argue is far too broad and vague.
The definition offered by the AAUW is broader and vaguer. "Drawing the Line" defines sexual harassment as "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior which interferes with your life" (p2). Fifteen types of behavior constitute sexual harassment. Topping the report’s list are "sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks."
In short, if someone shoots an unwanted "sexual look" your way, you’ve been sexually harassed. (Presumably the recipient of the look judges the sexual content as well as the ‘welcome factor’.)
"Drawing the Line" then asks surveyed students, "During your whole college life" has anyone ever directed "sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks" toward you or anyone you know personally? (pp.2-3)
The question echoes one asked in "Harassment-Free Hallways." Right after a ‘stats panel’ stating that over 80 percent of their peers report harassment, students are asked about their own experience of "sexual comments, jokes, teasing, gestures, or looks." In essence, they are asked, "are you like other kids?"
Given the broad definition and how questions suggest their own answers, it is not surprising that AAUW finds sexual harassment running rampant.
It is surprising that schools so often use AAUW-style definitions to set policy. At best, the AAUW reports are interesting sociological surveys of how students view their environment. Realistically, they are biased and self-administered reports from students, who are often children.
They should never be a basis for law or policy.
As Lukianoff observes, this is precisely what has happened.
"With millions of students allegedly believing they were ‘harassed’ by merely rude or bawdy speech, it is no wonder that colleges and universities are inundated with frivolous harassment claims and lawsuits."
Thus, the created hysteria "endangers free expression while trivializing actual harassment."
In grade schools, it also criminalizes normal childhood behavior like poking a boy or girl you like.
Some view the suspended Massachusetts 6-year-old as an extreme example to be dismissed as an aberration. The facts frown upon this interpretation. The school’s reaction was not isolated. Since 1996, when 6-year-old Johnathan Prevette was separated from his classmates in Lexington, N.C. for kissing a little girl on the cheek, similar reports have been in the news. (And they are only the ones that are noticed.)
Moreover, the Massachusetts School Committee in question defines sexual harassment as "uninvited physical contact such as touching, hugging, patting or pinching." The boy’s behavior fit that description.
When confronted by an outraged mother, school officials defended their actions as ‘by the book.’ Indeed, school superintendent Basan Nembirkow said the matter "got out of hand" because the district’s sexual harassment policy was closely followed.
What does it say of a law that is blatantly unjust when enforced as written?
I think it says the law should be scrapped along with the assumptions it rode in on. The law should be ripped to shreds, not just modified.
The Massachusetts school is modifying its policy in the face of overwhelmingly hostile media coverage and a pending lawsuit. That’s an inadequate step in the right direction.
Another step is to hold the AAUW responsible for the harm wrought to children by biased reports that lump "comments, jokes, teasing, gestures, or looks" in with real violence.
William Paterson University
University of New Hampshire