Monday, December 11, 2006

"You must remember this, a hug is just a hug..." - Today's revelations about a four year-old child being suspended for inappropriately touching a teacher's aide are hardly shocking, and unfortunately nothing new. Amid the headlines that trumpeted the news in the February 8, 2006 edition of The Boston Globe was one that informed readers of the suspension of a six year-old boy.

Like most of us, Berthena Dorinvil can attest to the fact that little boys have a knack for getting themselves into trouble, and sometimes serious trouble. But if she or any of us were to catalogue all the things for which a six year-old could be suspended, I’m not sure if sexual harassment would be high on that list. The Globe story mentioned that Ms. Dorinvil’s son was suspended for putting two fingers inside a classmate’s waistband and touching her skin. For his part, the boy said that he touched his classmate after the girl touched him.

“My son doesn’t know what sexual harassment is,” said Ms. Dorinvil, adding, “He doesn’t know those things, he’s only six years old.” According to later reports, there were no charges pressed against the boy, as no crime was deemed to have been committed. Indeed, there would appear to be no reason to expect that a boy in first grade would have any sexual, let alone criminal, intent as it pertains to another classmate. How the administrators at Downey Elementary School in the Boston suburb of Brockton were able to suspend a first-grade boy for three days speaks much as to where liberalism by way of feminism has taken us.

By Massachusetts state law, school systems must have policies barring sexual harassment, as is true for many school systems across the country. (These policies became necessary after a 1999 Supreme Court decision in Davis vs. Monroe, which stated that school systems could be sued for monetary damages if they ignore sexual harassment.) Nan D. Stein, a former Massachusetts Department of Education official and currently a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley Centers for Women, developed the state’s first curriculum on sexual harassment. In a Globe follow-up story on February 9, 2006, Ms. Stein was quoted as saying, “We shouldn’t be labeling [the touching] sexual harassment,” adding, “They don’t understand it.”

As if to further establish the prevalence of sexual harassment among grade-schoolers, the March 25, 2005 Morning Journal alerted us to the plight of an eight year-old who was removed from school for a day. After school administrators in the Cleveland suburb of Lorain reviewed the events surrounding the claim of a female student who claimed that several boys touched her buttocks during gym class, the boy was removed from school on an “emergency removal” for inappropriate behavior. Ultimately, his offense was writing a note to the girl a few weeks previously which said “OI love you [sic].”

And it’s not just elementary school students who lack clarity on the issue, for I too confess not understanding certain things surrounding the suspension. For starters, even if we accept that the touching was somehow “inappropriate,” how was it that the behavior was deemed worthy of suspension at all, let alone suspension for sexual harassment? How could any right thinking adult look at this situation and see the need for anything more than a “time out”?

We know that over the last few decades, so-called “second wave” feminists have worked to redefine gender roles in American society, especially those pertaining to sex. My sense is that as a result, we have learned to frame male – female interactions, including the behavior of children, in the context of feminist narratives of male sexual predation and female submission. In short, we have superimposed themes of adult sexuality onto our children. One of the collateral effects of this new line of thinking has been a change in the way we view our children and their behavior, particularly any behavior that could be construed as sexual.

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