Students harassing students

August 24, 1993

Since the Ron Price sex scandal at Anne Arundel County's Northeast High School, public attention has been focused on sexual misconduct by adults in schools. But students suffer at the hands of other students, too. Anne Arundel and Carroll counties have faced up to that fact by adopting new sexual harassment policies that apply both to students and employees.

The policies will not protect students, however, unless school officials and parents realize that much behavior traditionally dismissed as mere adolescent antics, as just a part of growing up, truly is harassment. We are especially concerned that complaints by boys will not be taken seriously.

What kind of behavior are we talking about?

Consider what goes on in one of the most sexually and emotionally loaded places in school, the boys' locker room. There probably isn't a high school locker room where some young man doesn't endure sexual insults, taunts and abuse by bullying classmates. It's a safe bet he will suffer in silence or drop the class. He dares not complain to the teacher, not just because he's afraid of what other kids will think if they find out, but because he knows he'll find no ally. Quite the contrary, he'll probably be told to quit whining and grow up.

Yet he has been harassed, just as surely as a girl surrounded by boys snapping her bra strap. The definition of harassment in the Carroll and Anne Arundel policies makes this clear. It cites unwelcome physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature, specifically conduct that creates "an intimidating, hostile or offensive education environment."

No one expects these new rules to wipe out juvenile jokes, crude comments or sexually charged conversation. Some of this is a part of growing up. But our society has been too willing to excuse genuinely mean-spirited, hurtful behavior as harmless fun. Some still excuse adults who do these things, so attempts to set higher standards for juveniles are bound to meet with derision.

School officials should not be cowed. Young people are not too young to learn that this type of "fooling around" makes its victims miserable; that it isn't funny, but cruel. When school starts, principals and guidance counselors should talk frankly and specifically about what kinds of behavior are no longer allowed. They also must make sure adult staff members take these new rules seriously when students approach them with complaints.

Otherwise, we may end up teaching our young people the wrong lesson about sexual harassment.

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