An American View

Going overboard on sexual harassment

We have become terrified that the wrong remark or an admiring glance could land us on the wrong end of a lawsuit

Fred Bruning October 21 1996
An American View

Going overboard on sexual harassment

We have become terrified that the wrong remark or an admiring glance could land us on the wrong end of a lawsuit

Fred Bruning October 21 1996

Going overboard on sexual harassment

We have become terrified that the wrong remark or an admiring glance could land us on the wrong end of a lawsuit

An American View

Fred Bruning

American schools face a million problems but when it comes to squelching sexual harassment in the primary grades, U.S. education has no equal. In recent days, authorities moved swiftly against two macho predators-a six-year-old in North Carolina and a seven-year-old in New York City-who kissed little girls during school hours. Such treachery could not

be endured, so Carolina officials banned Johnathan Preverte from an ice-cream party and banished him to a room separate from his classmates. No less opposed to villainy, New York suspended babyfaced De’Andre Dearinge from school for five days, although some softhearted fool commuted the boy’s sentence after three.

There is no place for compromise on the front lines of the morality

wars. You let a Preverte or Dearinge get away with a peck on the cheek today, that same young scoundrel will want to hold hands with a classmate tomorrow, or share his fluffernutter with an unsuspecting tyke next week.

As Jane Martin, district spokeswoman for the Lexington, N.C., school district, so wisely observed after young Preverte was exiled: “A six-year-old kissing another six-year-old is inappropriate behavior. Unwelcome is unwelcome at any age.” That Prevette’s mother said the little girl in question had asked for a kiss apparently was of no interest. Some other time, no doubt, the district will deal with that pint-size Jezebel, too.

What we see in the two munchkin “harassment” capers is not only authority figures behaving as dumb as doorstops but a strain of societal angst so powerful that we may have to begin adding Prozac to our drinking water.

Harassment! Speaking the word in public is like like shouting ‘Timber!” in the redwoods.

Everyone dives for cover. And don’t blame it all on political correctness. Hie chill that shivers the bones of executives in the public and private sectors these days has at least as much to do with fear of retribution as slavish loyalty to right-on notions of decent conduct. Ideology isn’t the issue. Anxiety is.

We literally have become afraid of one another—terrified that the wrong remark at the water cooler or an admiring glance mistakenly interpreted could land us, or our companies or school districts, on the wrong end of a lawsuit. Nothing must escape our vigilant scowl, not even classrooms and playgrounds where children often embrace like bear cubs. So what is the natural reaction? Come down like gangbusters on kids so young they have notions neither of sex nor harassment. Innocence is not an acceptable excuse—not any more. Rules must be obeyed, examples made. One fears, however, that the only lesson Johnathan and De’Andre learned is that big people sure can be weird-o-rama.

Leaving aside questions of common sense and cultural madness, the spectacle of school administrators pushing obscure notions of acceptable behavior on the post-kindergarten crowd is not exactly the sort of thing American education needs at the moment. Taxpayers worry that the nation’s schools are in trouble anyway—86 per cent said in a recent poll that education issues would determine who they voted for in the November presidential election—and the North Carolina and New York episodes are hardly faith-renewing.

While public education is an enormously complicated enterprise that varies widely from place to place, the fact remains that too many American kids are entering adult life with undernourished intellects. A national study showed that but a third of high-school seniors could handle arduous reading material and only 11 per cent

demonstrated a strong grasp of history. More proof? Talk to any teacher. An instructor at one of New York state’s public universities asked students on a current events quiz to identify Israel’s major Palestinian settlements. Many drew a blank, and one person replied the “Gaza Strip and West Indies.” On another exam, students had to locate Guatemala by region. Only a few chose “Central America” from a list of four possibilities and one fellow wrote “Africa” even though it was not an option.

While campus standards may be staggering like a frat boy on Friday night, many collegians have assumed an air of entitlement that makes a bad situation worse. New York Daily News columnist John Leo cited a book by a California college teacher who found students expected good grades simply by virtue of having paid tuition—“because,” as Leo says, “they saw themselves as consumers ‘buying’ an education from teachers.”

Enlightenment as a function of the free market. Only in America.

Teachers complain that kids want to be entertained in class and are easily bored by instructors without the schtick of Jerry Seinfeld. What to do? Respected educator Theodore Sizer says in his new book, Horace’s Hope: What Works for the American High School, that teachers should minimize rote learning, abandon standardized tests and exploit the youthful appetite for fun and frolic by introducing adventure and teamwork into the learning experience. But E. D. Hirsch Jr., a scholar of equal repute, argues just as strenuously in his recently published volume The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them for a demanding core curriculum, plenty of tests and students who study their brains out.

The discussion is invigorating and all Americans ought to listen up. President Clinton, who stressed education in last week’s debate with GOP nominee Bob Dole, is pushing an initiative called “Goals 2000” aimed at academic achievement. We should fund it big time, invest heavily in our kids and tell educators to worry about teaching, not trivialities. Otherwise, kiss the future goodbye.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.