For Demarcus Blackwell, having the "sex talk" with his 15-year-old son was "kind of embarrassing." But that was nothing compared with the idea of explaining sexual harassment to his preschooler. "He doesn't have the slightest clue about sex anything," says Blackwell, of Waco, Texas, whose 4-year-old son Christopher was suspended last year for sexual harassment when a female school aide reported that the child buried his face in her chest when she hugged him. "How do you explain what's a better kind of hug?"
Blackwell is one of a number of parents whose kindergartners and first graders are being suspended, often for days at a time, for sexual misconduct based on behavior like hugging, poking and pinching classmates or school staff. In Ohio, 74 first graders were suspended for "unwelcome sexual conduct" last year, up from 52 in 2005. In Virginia, at least 13 kindergartners have been suspended in each of the last three years for "sexual touching." Massachusetts and Maryland also note recent increases in rates of pint-size offenders.
Some educational professionals are shocked that states are even collecting data about sexual harassment among children so young. "For real? I'm suddenly scared that my daughter shows her panties all the time," says Amy Rezzonico of the Arizona Department of Education, whose 4-year-old has a habit of lifting her skirt over her head in public. In some states, though, the crackdown is a way for schools to hedge against lawsuits for neglecting sexual-harassment claims. "A lot of people say, 'Well, it's just elementary-age kids.' But … our culture has a lot of vulgarity in it right now," says Jim Walsh, a Texas lawyer who trains school officials to spot sexual harassment among students. Administrators, he says, are "on guard, and understandably so."
Experts, however, say the hard-line approach is punishing normal developmental behavior. Five- and 6-year-old kids "need to touch," says Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women. "Whether it's 'show me yours and I'll show you mine' or snapping each other's clothes, let's not confuse sexual behavior with sexual harassment." Blackwell, whose attempt at explanation only baffled his son, says that Christopher is "asexual." That may have changed since the words "sexual harassment" entered his vocabulary.