A Kiss Isn't Just A Kiss

THE NATIONAL MEDIA HAD LARGELY pulled out of Lexington, N.C., by the time Jeanie Buchanan squeezed her way into the middle-school auditorium last Monday night. For locals like Buchanan, the damage was already done. Since Sept. 19, when 6-year-old Johnathan Prevette kissed a classmate and was disciplined for sexual harassment, the town had become an object of national derision, a case of political correctness run amok. It was an easy target. A cute kid had expressed some affection. What did that have to do with sex or harassment? Support for Prevette poured in. He found a soulmate--and more media exposure--when PS 104 in Queens, N.Y., suspended 7-year-old De'Andre Dearinge for kissing a classmate and pulling a button off her skirt. (Both schools later decided the incidents did not constitute sexual harassment.) Over the weekend, Prevette rode on a float at a local car race, and walked off to exhortations of ""Kiss me! Kiss me!'' from grown women. Travesty averted; to the victim, the spoils.

Yet here in this small Southern town of 16,000--hardly a launch pad for social revolution--there was still some sorting-out to do. What behavior is appropriate for elementary-school kids, and what for the administrators entrusted with their care? Buchanan and nearly 100 neighbors crammed into a hastily scheduled school-board meeting. The board conceded that its sexual-harassment policy needed some tinkering, to take into account the age of the kids. But most came to support the policy, not to mock it. Buchanan, a volunteer classroom helper, told NEWSWEEK of a third grader who was sexually propositioned by another student. Jeff Check, whose daughter is in the seventh grade, asked, ""How old does a girl have to be before no means no?''

Murky issue: As the Clarence Thomas hearings demonstrated, sexual harassment can be a swampy slog even when the participants are old enough to know better. In the last few years, the debate has spread beyond the workplace and into the nation's schools. And there things have gotten even messier. A 1993 study of boys and girls in grades eight to 11, conducted for the American Association of University Women, produced some alarming numbers: 81 percent said they had been sexually harassed. Commonly teachers did little to stop it. One third of those harassed said the problem began in the sixth grade or earlier. For these younger kids, the issue becomes especially murky: where do you draw the line between normal, developmental behavior and harassment, between flirting and hurting?

As with adult sexual harassment, we are increasingly asking the courts to decide. Two weeks ago a jury in California awarded $500,000 to Tianna Ugarte, who was taunted by a sixth-grade classmate; finding that the school had ignored her repeated complaints, the court ordered her former principal to pay $6,000 of the fine himself. The number of student complaints investigated by the federal government's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) is increasing steadily and now numbers about 200 cases a year. In August the OCR distributed a preliminary set of guidelines, for the first time focused on harassment of students by other students--13 pages, single-spaced, with another 13 of footnotes. Any district wishing to explain them to a 7-year-old has a tall order ahead.

Afraid of lawsuits, some schools have overreacted, drawing up rigid policies with inadequate forethought or training. ""The untold story,'' says Nan Stein of the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, ""is that you now have a small growth industry of people with training packages and videotapes--and a lot of them have wrong information on them.'' The school board in Millis, Mass., has gone so far as to ban hand-holding. In Lexington, school policies--drawn after a highly publicized 1993 suit in Eden Prairie, Minn.--required teachers to report Prevette's kiss to the principal as soon as the girl complained. ""The OCR wants to know you have labeled [an incident] sexual harassment,'' says Ann McColl, legal counsel for the North Carolina School Board Association. This, too, may be an overreaction. ""Our policy isn't looking for labels,'' says OCR's Norma V. Cantu, ""but looking for illegal sexual harassment and preventing it in the future.''

Dr. Stanley Greenspan is one of many child-development authorities who believe that schools are wrong to label the behavior of 6- and 7-year-olds as sexual harassment. The kids are simply too young to understand the concept. But, he says, it is a mistake to excuse unwanted kisses as harmless play. Rather, he sees them as a destructive form of bullying, and part of a continuum that includes sexual bullying at a later age. ""Young children of 6 or 7 are going through a process of trial and error,'' says Jerlean Daniel, who teaches child development at the University of Pittsburgh. ""They count on adults to give them cues.'' In a case like Prevette's, she says, the school missed an opportunity to teach both kids--and maybe their classmates--a lesson. Instead of filing a report, the teacher ""should ask the girl, "Did you want that to happen?', so she understands that she has the right to say no. And you need to tell the boy that there are other ways to let someone know you like them. If you just chastise the boy, then you're treating the girl like she's just this object, instead of teaching her to stand up for herself.''

In Lexington, where Prevette was recently hailed by both Monica Seles and Jesse Helms, such wisdom can be hard to come by. Jeff Check found his passion tangled in his own language. ""The girl has been victimized, and they are making her aggressor--there's that adult term again--a hero.'' Last week, as New York feted 12-year-old Yankee fan Jeffrey Maier for interfering with a baseball game, Prevette was only one of two kids celebrated for his dubious behavior. And grown-ups wonder where their kids pick up their bad habits.

A Kiss Isn't Just A Kiss | News