Just who is being harassed here?

The attorney representing school board member Cindy Vaillancourt used lawyerly words in refuting the July complaint against her that came to light last week.


As reported in this newspaper, Thomas Morrow called an accusation of sexual harassment leveled at his client "arbitrary" and "capricious."

I've got another word for it, but propriety prevents me from using it here. It relates to the excretory function of a male bovine.

Morrow's other description, though, cuts to the heart of the matter. The complaint, he said, runs "contrary to common sense."

This whole perplexing episode began toward the end of the last school year. Vaillancourt was talking, on school grounds, to a mixed group of parents and students. Relating something she'd heard about a Giant Food employee asking for identification from someone buying over-the-counter contraception, Vaillancourt asked, "Did you know that you have to be 18 to buy condoms?"

A month later, one of the students and the boy's parents filed a sexual harassment complaint against Vaillancourt, a copy of which the Baltimore Sun Media Group acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request.

The document states that Vaillancourt's question constituted "sexually explicit, unwarranted language."

In whose world does the word "condom" rate as racy? Apparently, that of the Howard County Public School System.

Its Office of Equity Assurance looked into the complaint and found that Vaillancourt had indeed run afoul of the county's sexual harassment policy, and urged her to seek sensitivity training.

Certainly, no one has accused Vaillancourt of making unwanted advances, attempting any sort of coercion or tossing around sexual innuendos. No, the complaint would have us believe she simply made the lad uncomfortable by uttering a naughty word.

Nothing in the policy, mind you, provides for this interpretation. It prohibits offensive language, exemplified by "epithets, dirty jokes, derogatory comments, or slurs of a sexual nature," but by any reasonable yardstick, Vaillancourt's words don't come close to any of this.

The fig leaf school system officials seem to be reaching for here is the policy's preface that "examples of sexual harassment include, but are not limited to" all of the above.

Vaillancourt's fellow board members piled on last week, voting to reprimand her for her conduct in the matter.

The board issued a similar official pronouncement of its displeasure with Vaillancourt five months ago, for her alleged violation of confidentiality in its infamous closed-door sessions. Which makes this latest admonition smell suspicious.

A board majority used similar tactics against former member and current candidate Allen Dyer when he, too, dared speak about what went on in closed board sessions. Yes, there are legal, common-sense provisions for keeping discussions of litigation and the like out of public view. But for decades the Howard County Board of Education's default setting has been secrecy rather than transparency, so when the current board slaps members who lift the curtain a little, I'm inclined to think there's something there the taxpayers ought to see.


By the same token, Vaillancourt's addressing the question of accessibility to contraception strikes me as just the sort of discussion we as a community — including our kids — ought to be having, not something upon which we put gag orders.

Not talking about unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases doesn't make them go away. It makes these problems worse.

Before one takes offense at the word "condom," one should consider being appalled at the state of our own knowledge and education regarding our sexuality and sexual health.

A 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention document reports that, despite similar risk factors in each country, the rate of adolescent pregnancy is seven times lower in the Netherlands than in the United States. The difference? Easy, supportive access to contraception, sex education in schools and home, and normalized discussions of adolescent sexuality promoting responsible sexual development.

That education stresses prevention of disease and unwanted pregnancy, the CDC says, but rather than obsessing about the "dangers, conflicts and difficulties of adolescent sex," the Dutch approach sexuality as a normal part of life and "focus on emotionally healthy relationships."

That last bit, emotionally healthy relationships, is something we could all do better at, young or old, and not just in terms of romance and intimate contact.

Some of our elected officials, for instance, could use a little remedial training in human interaction and respectful conflict resolution.