Children Abusing Children

June 04, 1995|By JEAN THOMPSON

They are only children, yet police have described their behavior with adult words that sicken the heart. They are accused of sex crimes.

Twice in recent weeks, Baltimore police agencies have investigated cases of children who alleged they were raped or molested by other children at North Bend Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore. This year, at least 66 sex offenses have been reported to the Office of School Police.

In the most recent incident, a 7-year-old boy accused another 7-year-old boy of making verbal advances, touching him and attempting to sodomize him while he stood in a bathroom stall.

About a month earlier, a teacher at the same school discovered a 10-year-old in a stairwell, pulling up his pants following an incident involving a 10-year-old girl. The girl accused the boy of raping her while a third 10-year-old stood as lookout.

The incidents sparked reaction from educators and parents ranging from raw outrage to pure disbelief. It is telling, however, that their questions about these cases have been identical:

What is happening with our children? Where do sexual crimes -- and precociousness -- come from at such tender ages? Can youngsters really comprehend -- and commit -- such despicable acts? How should parents, teachers and school districts handle this?

Child psychologists and school administrators have very different answers to these questions. All acknowledge, however, that we are no longer in an age in which early sexual misbehavior can be dismissed as simply "kids being kids."

"It's a mistake to assume it's early puberty and say 'forget about it,' " said Leon A. Rosenberg, a psychologist at the Children's Medical Center at Johns Hopkins Hospital, who used the incidents to speak generally about the causes of aggressive sexual behavior among youngsters.

"It's not typical 7-year-old behavior for kids to go to the bathroom and fool around, unless they've been sexually stimulated in some way by adults," Dr. Rosenberg said.

"They don't get it from TV. It is not sexual curiosity. It's most certainly not sexual gratification," he said. "The only way you get sexually acting out with a kid so young is when they've been victims themselves. And they can be victims without being touched: It could be violent sexual behavior around them that they witness."

He doesn't call such behavior imitation -- rather, children may act like their abusers as a pathological response, a way to deal with their trauma and anxiety.

Violent acts

"Children do experiment with some sexual behavior, but children do not routinely plan attacks on one another as part of that," said Dr. Joy Silberg, a psychologist at Sheppard Pratt Hospital. "If this was a violent act, that is absolutely not part of childhood experiment.

"This is not a normal thing that we should expect in any stairwell," she said. "Children know enough to have respect for one another if they are trained properly, and it is very unusual."

The sex-related incidents leave scars that are emotionally devastating for the students involved. Nevertheless, helping all of the children involved is the step the school system's social services and the parents must take.

Doing a better job may require a change in viewpoint. Rather than focusing on blame and dismissing precociousness, school officials could start their inquiries from the premise that these incidents may represent a trauma in the lives of the children involved -- aggressor and victim alike.

In the incident involving the 10-year-olds, a controversy loomed when the school suspended all three children, then reinstated the girl and transferred her to another school. As a result, the school system is reconsidering its policies regarding suspension. Both boys face juvenile rape charges.

The incident involving the younger boys in the bathroom underscores the difficulty school officials face when trying to sort out the truth. In this case, as in the earlier one, school officials heard conflicting stories from the students.

"We have a mother who has charged that an assault took place," said Superintendent Walter G. Amprey after the Police Department released news of the incident involving the 7-year-olds. "But at the school, it looks like two boys were in the bathroom fooling around."

Baltimore City police investigators, called by the victim's mother, recommended counseling for the alleged assailant and decided not to file charges against him, said spokesman Sam Ringgold. It was not clear what charge could be applied in a case involving children so young, he said. In all juvenile cases involving sexual offenses, the department works closely with agencies that protect children's rights.

In almost every jurisdiction, the mental health workers said, calling police immediately involves child-protection agencies that can provide counselors. They can try to find the origin of the child's abnormal behavior, and work to protect the child if he or she is being hurt by an adult.

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