Expelling sexual harassment School program baffles Minnesota teen-agers

May 24, 1992|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

PROCTOR, MINN. -- Mitch Ojard, a husky, brown-eyed high school senior, has been known to fight or skip a class here and there. If caught, which is what usually happens, he offers a few flimsy excuses and then accepts his punishment as fair.

But a few months ago, he said, school administrators went too far. They berated Mitch and notified his parents because he called a girl a "whore" and asked about a hickey on her neck.

That was sexual harassment, Mitch was warned. And it would not be tolerated.

"I had never heard of sexual harassment," he said, jamming his hands into the front pockets of his blue jeans and shrugging his shoulders. "I think a guy should get in trouble if he does something like grabbing a girl in her private spot. But they shouldn't punish us just for saying something.

"When I got home, my mom gave me a lecture," he adds. "But my dad told me it was all a bunch of [expletive], so I blew it off."

But in Minnesota a new state law is making it harder for students like Mitch to continue with their unwelcome remarks and advances.

At Proctor High School, with a student body of 700 mostly middle-income students, administrators press criminal charges against boys who grab girls' breasts or pull down their sweat pants. They ban hockey players from the ice for repeatedly sexually threatening girls or calling them obscene names. They pull the curtain on boys who dress up as girls during school assemblies, and they confiscate T-shirts with sexually-suggestive messages.

The frustrating battle between the sexes is erupting in schools across the country. Twenty years after Congress outlawed sexual harassment in schools through Title IX, the Supreme Court and several state legislatures have added teeth to the law, by allowing victims -- most commonly girls -- to sue school districts for monetary awards.

Minnesota's state legislature led the way in 1989 by passing a law that requires every public school to adopt policies defining sexual harassment and establishing reporting procedures and penalties.

That law led to a nationally publicized lawsuit in which a student from Duluth Central High School, about 15 miles from Proctor in northeastern Minnesota, sued the school because of sexually explicit graffiti about her on the walls of a boys' bathroom.

School officials, who did not remove the graffiti because they said there was no money for paint, eventually settled the suit and paid Katy Lyle $15,000 for "mental anguish." It was the first school ever to pay damages to a student.

The Pennsylvania and California state legislatures are considering laws similar to those in Minnesota.

No statewide policies regarding sexual harassment in schools have been proposed by Maryland education officials. However they say that several school districts -- including Prince George's, Howard and Harford counties -- are close to adopting their own policies to stem the overwhelming amount of coarse remarks and gestures that have long been accepted as part of the "kids will be kids" status quo.

"When girls are sexually harassed, they accept a second-class label for themselves," said Sue Sattel, a sex equity specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education. "They feel they have to laugh it off, which makes them feel demeaned, less assertive and less effective as human beings."

Stephanie Teppo, a 17-year-old senior at Proctor High, used her new-found power to stop a bully from taunting her with crude remarks.

"Now girls know that if they are harassed, they have the power to do something about it," said Stephanie. "And now teacher's won't look at us like it's our fault."

For weeks, Stephanie said, she tried to ignore her tormentor, but he kept calling her a whore.

She tried to bully him back: "I'd tell him to shut up, or else."

Then she found herself trying to reason with him: "I would say, 'Why are you calling me a whore? You know I don't sleep around.' "

Finally, when he demanded in the middle of class that she perform a sexual act with him, Stephanie decided she could not fight him alone. She went to a school administrator for help.

"I was so angry. You know how you get so mad you're shaking?"

The boy was admonished and suspended from playing hockey for two weeks.

"I was scared at first about reporting it, but I don't regret it because he's stopped," Stephanie said. "It's so degrading to be called names. It makes you feel so bad about yourself."

Proctor High is not a hotbed for the type of harassment Stephanie suffered, but it is in the forefront of the Minnesota program, and its administrators have been praised for their aggressive enforcement of rules against sexual harassment.

The school sits in the midst of a town of rolling hills and wood-shingle houses, each looking as if it was freshly painted. Most of the 3,000 residents are blue-collar laborers who moved to town to work in the iron and railroad industries.

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