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Expelling sexual harassment School program baffles Minnesota teen-agers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Unfortunately school administrators have not been able to educate parents about sexual harassment, and so punishments are not always reinforced at home, Bruce Watkins, principal at Proctor High School, said. For example, he said, the parents of the athlete who taunted Stephanie told their friends and neighbors that their son was suspended from playing hockey because he was drunk at a school dance.

"It's OK for their son to be a drunk," Mr. Watkins said. "But their son's no pervert."

Although proponents of new sexual harassment policies face staunch opposition from conservative legislators across the country, their greatest challenge may come from the students themselves. Like adults who have been grappling with this issue the workplace, students are having a tough time accepting new rules for relating to the opposite sex.

"Even the most decent kids are complaining that they can't flirt anymore," 17-year-old Amy Bennett, one of Proctor's star athletes, said. "This sexual harassment stuff can be a downer. If you take away kids' dirty jokes, we don't have many jokes left."

"The information [about sexual harassment] is so confusing that the only way kids know how to handle it is to laugh at it," Mr. Watkins said.

About 150 miles south of Proctor in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, Bonnie Clairmont has become keenly familiar with students' resistance to sexual harassment rules. She is a sex offense counselor who visits schools explaining to students the difference between flirting and crudity, between a polite pass and an obscene gesture.

"Sexual harassment is in the eye of the beholder," she explained to students at Humboldt High School in St. Paul. "What may be welcomed by one person, may be unwelcomed by another, and then it becomes harassment."

At the beginning of Ms. Clairmont's talk, the students -- mostly Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans from working class or welfare families -- are clearly uncomfortable with the topic. As Ms. Clairmont warned the students not to use words such as "whore" or "slut," they were fidgety and silent except for an occasional nervous giggle.

But as it became clear that many of their own behaviors could be considered sexual harassment, the students lashed out.

"Is staring sexual harassment?" one boy asked, in a hushed voice.

"Yes, if it bothers the person you are staring at or makes them uncomfortable. Then it should stop," Ms. Clairmont responded.

Low moans reverberated through the auditorium.

"How about giving someone the finger?" yelled a voice from a student at the back of the room. "I suppose that's harassment, too."

With a heavy sigh, Ms. Clairmont said, "Yes."

"What's she talking about?" mumbled several exasperated voices.

"Well, what does throwing someone a finger mean?" Ms. Clairmont pleaded.

"It means eff-you," a student responded.

"Well, that's a sexual term," she said.

"Give me a break," the student said, shaking his head. "Is there anything we are allowed to do?"

"She came across too serious," said Simon Jungbauer, 17, after hearing Ms. Clairmont speak. "She overreacted and made it sound like everything we do is sexual harassment."

Turning to a visitor with a sly grin, he added, "You don't mind it when someone winks at you, do you?"

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