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O.C.R. Urges 'Forceful' Reaction to Harassment of Children

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The U.S. Education Department has found that the Eden Prairie, Minn., school district violated federal anti-discrimination law by failing to respond "forcefully'' to charges that students as young as age 6 were being sexually harassed by other students.

The finding by the department's office for civil rights is the first involving peer harassment of students in the early elementary grades, according to Rodger Murphey, a department spokesman.

Experts believe the case could prompt school districts nationwide to re-examine their handling of harassment complaints involving children in that age group.

The civil-rights office found that the district violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sexual discrimination in schools receiving federal funds. The office acted in response to a complaint from the mother of a 6-year-old girl who said she repeatedly faced sex-related teasing by boys on her school bus during the 1991-92 school year.

The office's investigation expanded to include alleged incidents of harassment against seven other girls, ranging from 1st grade through middle school. It concluded that although the district had a policy in place to discourage sexual harassment, its officials failed to consider the incidents involving younger children as anything more than a discipline problem.

"The evidence shows that the district knew or should have known of the occurrence of the harassment but did not respond forcefully to end it,'' the O.C.R. said in its April 27 letter of finding against the district.

The district signed a settlement with the O.C.R. in which it did not admit to violating Title IX, but agreed to take steps to beef up its enforcement against sexual harassment. It promised to improve training of its employees to respond to such incidents, said it will investigate allegations more thoroughly, and may assign adult monitors to buses or other settings where harassment takes place.

Although the Education Department is empowered to withhold funds from districts that violate Title IX and other civil-rights laws, it rarely takes that step. The Eden Prairie case is considered closed as long as the district abides by its agreement.

Judy Schell, a district spokeswoman, said officials began taking steps to improve its response to allegations of sexual harassment even before the complaint was filed.

"We were disappointed in the findings, but we have agreed to follow some steps they suggested to us,'' she said. "There are still questions about [what constitutes] sexual harassment with small kids. The [Education] Department suggests that it can be sexual harassment with any age kid.''

Other Cases Pending

In the case of the student whose parent complained to O.C.R., the girl allegedly was called derogatory "sex related'' names and faced lewd jokes by boys on her bus, including some as young as she was. Despite the mother's letters of complaint, the district did not treat the incidents as sexual harassment, the O.C.R. said.

The other girls faced harassment on their buses or in school hallways and on the playground, including being teased about being flat-chested, the office said.

The O.C.R. said that "there is no question that even the youngest girls understood that the language and conduct being used were expressions of hostility toward them on the basis of their sex and, as a clear result, were offended and upset.''

The Eden Prairie complaint was one of three cases being investigated by O.C.R. involving peer harassment at the elementary or secondary school level, officials said. The other cases involve complaints in Sherman, Tex., and Mason City, Iowa. (See Education Week, Feb. 10, 1993.)

Nan D. Stein, the director of a project on sexual harassment in schools at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, said case findings such as the one in Eden Prairie could have an impact on other school districts. But she called on the O.C.R. to issue better guidance to schools on how they should handle student-to-student harassment.

"Until there are guidelines,'' she said, "I am not going to have any confidence about what standards [O.C.R. officials] are applying when they go to investigate a complaint.''

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