Cases challenge 'boys will be boys' status quo

March 11, 1992|By Jane Gross | Jane Gross,New York Times News Service

The vulgar graffiti in the bathroom stall was a daily humiliation for Katy Lyle, a form of illegal sexual harassment that the people in charge ignored despite a year and a half of complaints.

And so the young woman took legal action, filing charges with the state, preparing for a trial and finally reaching a settlement that clarified sexual harassment policies and paid her $15,000 for "mental anguish."

This was no shipyard or firehouse, but rather a high school, the arena that many educators, advocates for womens' rights and lawyers say will be the next battleground in America's bewildering war between the sexes.

In this case, it was the Duluth Central High School in Minnesota, which these experts believe is the first school in the nation to pay damages to a student, now 19 years old, who was sexually harassed by her male peers.

Following the lead of women in the workplace and on college campuses, female students in high schools and junior high schools are tentatively challenging the "boys will be boys" status quo.

And several recent court rulings and legislative developments make it more likely that educators will notice.

"Girls are getting more and more aware of it," said Whitney Casey, a student at Monte Vista High School in Danville, Calif. "We're sick of men's comments. It needs to stop."

The boys, for their part, are getting more and more confused. "Am I allowed to tell Whitney she has beautiful eyes?" asked Adam Saperstein, a classmate. "Where does it start and where does it stop?"

Two recent court rulings, including one by the Supreme Court, have held schools liable for damages in sexual harassment cases, and at least one state -- Minnesota -- does the same. The Minnesota law defines sexual harassment, essentially, as unwelcome sexual advances.

While the number of cases is still small, educators say they expect the issue to have a tremendous impact.

"We better give it some time and attention," said Ivan B. Gluckman, counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, who said he "wouldn't be surprised" if there was a rash of cases.

Those who favor sanctions say that ignoring certain behavior sends a message of inequality to girls and of privilege to boys and sets the stage for how men and women treat each other as adults.

"Girls are learning that they are second-class citizens, only valued for their physical attributes," said Sharon Schuster, presidentof the American Association of University Women, which recently issued a report that painted a damning picture of how girls are treated in school. "This has a terribly detrimental effect on girls -- and on boys. They will never learn equal relationships unless they are told this is not appropriate."

But others argue that applying adult rules to what many people consider teen-age high jinks is an overreaction. Bob Giananni, the principal at Monte Vista High, said that what may look like harassment is often just harmless adolescent exploration.

In Pennsylvania, where the legislature is considering a law comparable to Minnesota's, state Rep. Dennis E. Leh, a Republican, said he opposed the measure because it would "line lawyers' pockets."

Recent visits to a high school and junior high school in California made it clear that coarse remarks and gestures were widespread.

In conversations with more than 150 girls and boys at Monte Vista High in the Bay area and Stephens Middle School in Long Beach, virtually every student had experienced, witnessed or participated in such behavior.

In high school, many girls said the taunting escalated if they acknowledged it. "It's negative to speak up for yourself," one girl said. "A strong guy is a strong guy. A strong girl is a bitch."

The boys, with a few defiant exceptions, were ignorant of the girls' feelings rather than malicious. They misunderstand, for instance, the difference between a compliment and a crude remark. "There's a fine line; that's obvious to me now," one high school student said after a girl explained that she liked being told that her sweater was pretty but not that she had nice breasts.

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