Today, boys may be boys, but girls are fighting back


Until recently, boys teasing girls in school was something that girls usually had to chalk up to experience. Complain and they often got a "boys will be boys" response.

But these days, as young girls become more attuned to their rights, chronic name calling, hair pulling, pinching and other forms of taunting are being perceived as sexual harassment.

"People used to say, 'It's just boys must be boys,' but it's not," said Donna Cassyd, director of the Los Angeles Unified School District's Commission for Sex Equity. "It's discrimination of girls. It's oppressive behavior. And it's the unfair exertion of power of one gender over another.

"It's gone on forever -- under cover, allowed, OK'd and even sanctioned. But, fortunately, things are changing."

Last month, a Minnesota second-grader, Cheltzie Hentz, 7, became the first elementary school student in the United States to formally accuse other elementary-age children of sexual harassment. The complaint alleges that the child's school district failed to monitor and discourage harassment by boys directed toward Cheltzie and other girls.

The action, coupled with similar complaints across the nation, has spurred schools to take a second look at their responsibilities and ways to dissuade such behavior, school officials said.

This week, LAUSD middle and high schools are receiving 20,000 copies of the University of Michigan booklet "Tune in to Your Rights: A Guide for Teen-agers About Turning Off Sexual Harassment," Ms. Cassyd said.

The booklet, to be used by teachers in eighth- and 10th-grade peer counseling and social science classes, is part of a program, approved in May by the L.A. City Board of Education, to help prevent sexual harassment. A $60,000 grant by General Telephone paid for the booklets.

Each school also is required to name a complaint manager to ZTC whom students can confidentially report allegations of sexual harassment.

"We've been talking about it to the education board since 1989, but this is the first time that we've had such a program," Ms. Cassyd said. "And it's just the beginning. The next step is to develop a curriculum to include elementary schools. It's urgent and important to deal with the issue at that level."

LAUSD staff legal counsel Howard Friedman said that a civil suit alleging the mishandling of complaints of peer-to-peer sexual harassment never has been lodged against the district.

The line between teasing and sexual harassment can be thin, Mr. Friedman said. But, in general, sexual harassment is defined as the intent to inflict emotional distress on the opposite gender, he explained.

Often, Mr. Friedman said, adults too easily dismiss inappropriate gestures, touching and taunting as a simple show of affection.

"But there is a big difference between flirting and sexual harassment," Ms. Cassyd said. "The easy way to tell is that flirting feels good and sexual harassment doesn't."

Failure of school teachers, counselors or administrators to dissuade such behavior could be grounds for legal action, Mr. Friedman said.

"It is difficult to prevent it before it occurs," he said. "But if a pattern occurs, it is the responsibility of the school district to look into what has happened and try to maximize an effort to prevent it from happening again."

Action to combat the problem usually starts with one-on-one counseling, said LAUSD director of psychological services Loeb Aronin.

"When a 10-year-old boy is attracted to a 10-year-old girl, pulling hair or tapping on the shoulder may be the only way to get attention. It may be the only tools the boys have, but they may get overzealous," Mr. Aronin said.

"If she says stop it and the boy doesn't, then it might be perceived as harassment -- even sexual harassment.

"You don't tell the boys that their feelings are wrong, but that they're not expressing them in a socially acceptable way. The bottom line is that you don't want either party to be hurt."

If the trouble persists, the offending child may be referred to a school psychologist or an outside mental-health facility to determine if there are any deeper behavioral or emotional problems, Mr. Aronin said.

Other actions may include transferring the troublemaker to another school, suspension or expulsion, Mr. Friedman said.

He said that, because of the nature of the problem, many cases may never be reported.

"Sexual harassment is such a subjective matter, in terms of what people perceive and the societal pressure on a victim not to report it, that I think a lot of what goes on is not reported," Mr. Friedman said.

Ms. Cassyd cited a Minnesota survey indicating that up to 80 percent of teen-age females encountered some form of sexual harassment -- including remarks, staring, touching, gestures and propositions.

The new LAUSD program is designed to lower those percentages.

"Sexual harassment results in diminished educational opportunities for victims," Ms. Cassyd said. "Some girls who get teased complain of being tired and having trouble concentrating in class. By third grade, some girls learn that they are not supposed to work on computers, because the boys take over all the available computers.

"And it doesn't stop in the schools; it continues in the workplace. But the school is the right place to begin to stop it."

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