Teen support for Thomas split along gender lines

October 15, 1991|By Peter Jensen and Sheridan Lyons

If it were up to the seventh period Advanced Placement U.S. History class at Broadneck Senior High School, Clarence Thomas would be a Supreme Court justice and certain members of the U.S. Senate would be looking for a new line of work.

But the support for Judge Thomas was not unanimous. Most of the 11th-graders -- including eight of 10 girls -- think that some form of sexual discrimination against law professor Anita F. Hill took place.

"It makes me so mad," said Andrea Battalini, a 16-year-old volleyball player at the Anne Arundel County school. "I think he [Clarence Thomas] deserves to lose."

While much of the adult population has been transfixed by the startling, lurid and downright embarrassing details revealed during the televised Senate hearings, their children have been tuned in, too: watching and listening as the scandal has unfolded in their living rooms.

Across Maryland, the ensuing debate that has raged from street corners to board rooms could also be found in many high school classes yesterday -- with youngsters raising the same questions that have so baffled their parents.

In history teacher Tim McMullen's class, two questions were written on the blackboard: "Did sexual harassment take place concerning Judge Thomas and Anita Hill?" and "Should Judge Thomas' nomination be confirmed?"

Paired off boy-girl to debate the questions before a class-wide vote was taken, the gender gap soon became apparent. Most of the young men believed Judge Thomas; most of the young women backed Ms. Hill.

"I believe it could have happened but I don't believe it was sexual harassment," said James Bae, 16. "I don't think it's that serious."

His partner, Lucia DiRado, disagreed. She noted that Ms. Hill's reluctance to come forward may have been typical of victims.

"If she didn't want anybody to know, she might have gone on this way," said Lucia, 16. "I've talked to people who've had this experience, and they don't want it to get out."

When the vote was taken, 12 of the 20 students thought Ms. Hill had suffered sexual harassment and eight did not. By the same margin, the teen-agers believed Judge Thomas should be confirmed.

Mr. McMullen, a 23-year teaching veteran, said that the results were typical of his other classes, and he was surprised only that Judge Thomas did not receive stronger approval. Broadneck is in a predominately white, middle-class and upper-middle-class bedroom suburb near Annapolis where support for a Republican nominee is likely to be high.

The Senate Judiciary Committee got generally low marks from the students, who expressed dismay at much of the spectacle that unfolded on television over the weekend and at senators who preferred to lecture witnesses rather than question them.

But more importantly for a social studies teacher, the Thomas hearings have brought an aspect of U.S. government to life for these youngsters. Students debate the subject not just in class but in the hallways and cafeteria. One student told of her mother's attempt to call the office of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., to lobby him before tonight's vote.

"When you teach history you teach that history is a matter of interpretation, and moments like these prove that point," Mr. McMullen said.

At Chesapeake Senior High School in nearby Pasadena, the Thomas hearings provided fodder in history classes and in Sondra Gray's psychology class.

"Some of the students have gotten a little distressed by it all -- as so many of us have," said Ms. Gray, who teachers U.S. history and psychology. "Many, many of our students have spoken up for Judge Thomas and they compare the situation to a court of law and say he's innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt."

At Towson High School, the seniors in a class on the Constitution, Citizenship and Public Issues favored Clarence Thomas by about two to one -- with a heavy sympathy factor, said teacher Randy Dase.

Erica Schultz said she hadn't supported the nomination before, but over the weekend, "I started believing him. I felt sorry for him."

She wanted to know why Ms. Hill waited 10 years to accuse him.

"It's as if Judge Thomas is on trial for something that, well -- if it did happen, it should have been brought up then," Erica said.

But Dara Aisner said that the hearing has served "to define sexual harassment. It's something we all have to be aware of, guys and girls. If Clarence Thomas is confirmed, he'll have a big part in deciding what sexual harassment is."

Heather Norton said that there should be a thorough investigation now of "somebody who's going to be determining our Constitution for the rest of his life. We can't say later, 'We don't want you anymore,' because he's there for good."

At Catonsville High School, the nominee lost by a 10 to 8 vote in a 9th-grade advanced social studies class in U.S. government and economics, with many abstentions.

Almost all of the 13- and 14-year-olds had watched some of the Senate hearing, and teacher Beverly S. Hickman said that the class had profiled the nominee and debated his merit before the sexual harassment accusation became public.

Students in the law program at Lake Clifton-Eastern Senior High School will be focusing on the Thomas hearings during a class session today. The class is held in a room that is set up to resemble a courtroom, complete with a judge's chambers.

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