Teasing of Minn. 2nd grader prompts sexual harassment probes

December 02, 1992|By Rhonda Hillbery | Rhonda Hillbery,Los Angeles Times

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- Late last winter, some boys began teasing and taunting young Cheltzie Hentz on the school bus. In a case that has drawn international attention, Cheltzie's mother responded by filing complaints of sexual harassment.

Now both state and federal agencies are conducting investigations and the telephone of Sue Mutziger, Cheltzie's mother, is ringing off the hook. Federal officials believe the second-grader is the youngest person ever to prompt a sexual harassment inquiry by the U.S. Department of Education.

Ms. Mutziger turned to state and federal authorities this fall because she was unhappy with the response of the Eden Prairie School District to her daughter's case. Ms. Mutziger complained that the suburban Minneapolis district failed to respond to her concerns appropriately or promptly, a charge that the district vehemently denies.

It all started last year when Cheltzie, 7, came home from school with stories about "naughty language" heard on the bus and how a first-grade boy called Cheltzie and another girl obscene names. Throughout the year there were other incidents, including repeated profanity, references to genitalia and a suggestion that Cheltzie perform a sexual act on her father.

"I could see what was happening; she was going downhill," Ms. Mutziger said. "Many days I would pick her up from [after-school] day care and she was crying. The first thing she'd talk about was: 'Mom, I've got to tell you what's happening on the school bus.' Many days she didn't want to get on the bus. When you're constantly demeaned, humiliated and embarrassed, it affects your self-esteem, confidence level, who you are. You think you're no good anymore."

Ms. Mutziger, a single parent who is pursuing a master's degree in counseling, recalled her daughter concluding: "I guess that's just how boys are supposed to talk to girls, huh?"

"I was just livid," Ms. Mutziger said.

Ms. Mutziger first complained to the district in March. School officials said they believe the bus problems have been solved since then.

"We did a number of things . . . to eliminate or alleviate problems," said Superintendent Gerald McCoy. Among them, the district removed two children from the bus and disciplined them, and officials spoke to children riding the bus on the subject of appropriate language.

Mr. McCoy said he doesn't know why Ms. Mutziger, who acknowledged that the situation on Cheltzie's bus has "improved about 90 percent" this year, wasn't satisfied. "It seems to me she didn't want resolution on the local level. She wanted national recognition," he said.

Ms. Mutziger denied that she wanted the spotlight, and said that the case took on a life of its own because of its importance. Furthermore, she said that the district has a sexual harassment policy, but has failed to follow it.

She said she wants the district to deploy a comprehensive teaching-and-training program on sexual harassment for students and staff and place adults or video monitors on school buses.

Video cameras would cost a prohibitive $500,000, Mr. McCoy said. "We don't want to treat this thing like Big Brother with a camera on every bus," he said. "We think we should change behavior. This is a societal problem."

The investigation by state authorities is pending, and the federal probe by the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is scheduled to conclude by the end of January. A finding against the school district could bring a negotiated settlement or a possible loss of federal funding for the district.

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