ON THE ROAD
Not So Common Sense
The U.S. Supreme Court will hand down a ruling later this year in a bizarre case of sexual harassment involving 10-year-olds. Aurelia Davis, the plaintiff, alleges that Monroe County, Georgia, school officials failed to respond to complaints that her daughter, LaShonda, was being fondled and harassed by a boy in her 5th grade class. Davis eventually went to the police, and the boy pled guilty to sexual battery, but Davis is suing, claiming that schools can be held responsible for student-on-student sexual harassment. When the case was heard before the court in January, it stirred the passions of columnists and editorial writers nationwide, all of whom seem to claim that common sense is on their side, whichever side that may be.
The first time little Johnnie harasses little Susie, he should be hauled into the principal's office, where his little fanny is paddled. Then little Johnnie should be sent home with a note describing his behavior. The discipline he will receive from his parents will be far worse than any punishment he would ever receive from his teachers or his principal. That's how children used to be disciplined before the first generation of parents in the 1960s rejected parental discipline as fascist, authoritarian, and destructive of their children's creativity.
Dayton Daily News
We are too quick to trivialize the bullying that leaves children alone to deal with their own pint-size tyrants. But it is legitimate to wonder where you draw the line between teasing and harassment. . . . How does a school, under fear of lawsuit, mete out punishment appropriate for everything from hallway antics to harassment? This is a problem that should be solved by teachers, parents, and principals, not lawyers.
What happens, though, when those in charge refuse to address the problem? When a school knowingly and willfully stands aside and lets students create a hostile environment? In the name of that not-so-common common sense, there has to be a compromise between the fear of frivolous lawsuits and the fear of harassment. And there is one--no matter what those who sound the alarm and trivialize the problem say. The same standards that the court set up in teacher harassment can easily apply to students.
Sexual harassment among students is at the stage at which sexual harassment in the workplace was a few years ago. . . . [T]his case is not as much about what one student did as it is about what the school didn't do. The school failed to respond to behavior that clearly was sexual harassment and that adversely affected the victim's ability to get an education. A ruling for LaShonda Davis wouldn't take discipline out of the hands of school officials. Quite the contrary. It would put educators on notice that punishing and preventing such behavior is not simply their prerogative; it is their duty. Any school that fails in that duty should pay a price.
Those who believe that even a sandbox insult can make its way to the Supreme Court must be raising their glasses. . . . If the court held in the parent's favor in this case, we would be asking teachers to become law enforcers on top of everything else we expect them to do. One effect is to drive capable people farther away from a profession that desperately needs more good, talented, diligent, and dedicated recruits.
The schools have a responsibility to provide a safe, wholesome atmosphere for learning. A student who tells her principal she is being mistreated sexually by anyone on school property, including a classmate, ought to have a legal remedy if the principal allows the harassment to continue.
While it may feel right to want justice for this child who undeniably suffered, it is wrong to convert a single, extreme incident into a national springboard for the expansion of already unwieldy sexual harassment laws. . . . It's inappropriate to extract money from school boards who have no control over the behavior and from whom, ironically, we've effectively removed any authority to take appropriate disciplinary action. If the school had expelled the offending kid, they'd have had another kind of federal lawsuit on their hands.
It is true that too many of our schools are rife with incivility, profanity, and bullying. Yet most intimidation is non-sexual. Boys do the greater share of physical bullying, but they have no monopoly on hurtful behavior. Girls are proficient at what sociologists call "relational aggression"--hurting by shunning, excluding, spreading rumors. Almost any junior high school girl will tell you that girls can create as much misery as boys, especially for other girls.
Children and teenagers need moral guidance. They need firm codes of discipline in a school environment that does not tolerate egregious meanness or gross incivility, whether sexual or nonsexual. They do not need a federal law that bears down hard on boys.
--Christina Hoff Summers
Vol. 10, Issue 6, Page 47Published in Print: March 1, 1999, as ON THE ROAD