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.
"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.
From September to March, 66 sex offenses were reported in the city schools, compared with 53 reported during all of the previous school year. While school officials consider the cases as isolated incidents rather than a trend, they have sparked a review of the guidelines principals and teachers use for investigating sexual misbehavior allegations. Dr. Amprey has said that changes will be in place by September.
"I'm concerned that the emphasis is on policy and it should be on programs -- for prevention and for education," said Dr. Amprey. "There needs to be an extension of what we teach to young people that has to do with values and character, and those things we've left to the families and which, unfortunately, are not taught."
The path had been charted already for them by a committee of parents and health workers who last year proposed district policies on sexual misconduct, harassment and violence.
That committee started its work in late 1993 when a parent complained that a first-grade girl was repeatedly harassed by a first-grade boy who constantly lifted her clothing. The school's principal reportedly dismissed this as innocent behavior.
The committee drafted 10 pages of guidelines which, if adopted, will provide the district's first direct statement to students and parents about behaviors that will be considered intolerable in school.
They include: sexual joking and gesturing, leering, repeatedly pressuring for dates or unwanted sexual activity, spreading sexual rumors, pinching, grabbing -- and sexual assault and abuse.
The guidelines also lead teachers and principals step-by-step through the process of investigating children's allegations of sexual assault and harassment. They are intended to help administrators protect the children's privacy, safety and rights in the aftermath of the incident, said Maurice B. Howard, the former assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for city schools.
The proposed guidelines also are intended to help with the most difficult task school officials face in sexual misbehavior cases: seeking the truth.
Principals are responsible for deciding whether children are goofing around, engaging in youthful experimentation, or aggressively harming one another, said Sheila Kolman, president the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association. They must do this while dealing with their own shock or revulsion at the allegations, several school employees said.
Sometimes children falsely accuse someone, Ms. Kolman and other principals said. Sometimes they are poorly informed, and misidentify innocent behavior as sexual harassment. They come to the principal and to trusted teachers for help, which can sometimes be a few kind words.
The principals are in a tough position: They don't feel they can call the police at every suggestion that a sexual offense has occurred; they must rely on their judgment.
They want to protect the children, many of whom do not understand the complexities or the consequences of their behavior. They also are concerned about the rights and liabilities of their staff and their school.
Dr. Silberg says society may bear some of the blame for what's happening in the schools.
"The fact that our society has so much sexuality information and exposure for younger kids, it makes them much more aware," said Dr. Silberg.
Consequently, it is not uncommon to find children 10 years old and younger who understand that rape is a forced sex act.
"Yes, in our society unfortunately, truly they do, because there is very little protection for children from almost any adult information," she said. "Much is available, and it could be from TV, from magazines, from movies."
Dr. Silberg's position seems bolstered by the fact that in Baltimore schools, sex education isn't taught as a health class until fifth grade. Even AIDS education is limited by state law: Baltimore students learn as early as third grade that AIDS is a blood disease, but not until fifth grade that it is sexually transmitted, said Dr. Howard.
The specific state curriculum rules say human reproduction teaching may not begin before age 10, but otherwise the scheduling is up to local school districts.
That means most of what young children know, they have brought to school from home or communities. Most often, it is the healthy, natural and factual information that parents teach when they feel the child needs to know, and that kids sometimes share with each other.
When they hurt one another, however, a lesson must be taught.
"For the boys -- if they were perpetrators -- it's an opportunity for them while they are still young to learn proper ways to handle their feelings, to learn to control their impulses, and to learn that
violence is not acceptable," said Dr. Silberg.
Parents, she said, need to recognize that children are as blank slates, influenced by what they are exposed to, whether it is soft pornography on cable TV or adult sexual behavior that they witness.
Children can be taught "that their body is their own and that no one has the right to touch them in a way they aren't comfortable with, not their friends, not adults, not even people who love them," she said.
The city schools' sexual harassment subcommittee has also proposed that the school system take another look at the character-education components of the curriculum. Without focusing on sex education, the members said, it's possible to teach children to respect their bodies, their privacy and each other.
Dr. Howard said most, but not all Baltimore City elementary schools teach children as young as kindergarten age about respect and the difference between "good touching and bad touching." Many other school districts use similar lesson plans.
He also advocates teaching children some aspects of sex education before fifth-grade health classes -- which would require a waiver from state regulation. The Baltimore school district has not asked for such a waiver.
While these classes have many benefits, especially in that they encourage children to seek help from trusted adults when they are being abused, they aren't cures, Dr. Rosenberg cautioned. And, he said, "It has no effect on the acting out of the abused child."
"We always look to the school system to fix problems in society, and it's not fair -- they can't do it," Dr. Rosenberg said. "All they can do is provide reasonable security so when disturbed kids act out they don't hurt other kids. The school building has to be a mixture of some freedom and some security. The school building cannot be turned into a prison."
E9 Jean Thompson covers education for The Baltimore Sun.