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Letting Kids Know Harassment’s a No-No

The thing about school kids--even the darlings you have raised in your own home, even the ones whose parents you have swapped “Aren’t they adorable?” stories with and even the ones who you wouldn’t mind marrying yours off to in, say, 30 years--is this. They can be jerks.

Kids can pretty much pull off any prank, misdeed or wrongdoing that grown-ups can, only with less guilt.

One of my favorite movie lines comes from “Hook.” Robin Williams (a.k.a. Peter Pan in Denial) sits next to his son during a turbulent flight to London and watches him throw a ball against the compartment holding the oxygen masks above his seat. It is annoying as hell, especially when Dad was all set on having a heart-to-heart.

Father, on the brink: “Stop acting like a child!”

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Kid, cool as they come: “I am a child.”

If this nation ever does get around to issuing parenting licenses, this axiom should be included in the multiple choice test that applicants must pass.

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Once parents come to realize that occasional obnoxiousness is normal, they can relax. It’s easy to fall into the novice’s trap of always butting in to resolve children’s conflicts rather than letting the kids work it out among themselves.

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There. All that is the caveat.

The meat of this column is about the exceptions to this principle. To wit, it’s high time that children learn about sexual harassment, even if they are too young to really understand what those words mean.

California is on the right track.

In case you’ve missed it, I’m speaking of yet another Daughter of Anita Hill bill that went into effect in California on Jan. 1, without so much as a whoop-de-do.

State Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara) says the idea for the legislation came to him as he was watching the boys from the Senate Judiciary Committee grill the law school professor as to whether she was wishing that she had been sexually harassed by the man who would be a Supreme Court justice for the rest of his life.

Of the fourth- through 12th-graders covered by his bill, Hart says, “If we can teach them what is inappropriate behavior as kids, it will make it a lot easier for them to avoid this problem before they reach adult status.”

The theory: Tried and true. The reality: A road mined with cluster bombs. Wait for the law’s first test case and then stand back. All sorts of sacred tenets of child rearing, education and individual rights will hit the fan.

One need only look to Minnesota, believed to be the first state to require each school district to develop a sexual harassment-sexual violence policy, to see what I mean.

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There, 7-year-old Cheltzie Hentz of Eden Prairie has become the youngest person ever to prompt a sexual harassment inquiry by the U.S. Department of Education.

Cheltzie was coming home from first grade last year with tales of obscene language on the school bus in general, and in particular, directed at her and another girl by a first-grade boy. There were other such incidents throughout the year, including the suggestion that Cheltzie perform a sexual act on her dad.

Cheltzie’s mother says her daughter was humiliated, demeaned and embarrassed, and that it was affecting her self-esteem. She turned to the state and the feds after complaining that the local school district didn’t take her concerns seriously enough.

The district denies this and suggests that Cheltzie’s mother is a publicity hound.

Which may be true.

Then, of course, Anita Hill was also lanced with this double-edged sword. And if she hadn’t come forward, chances are good that few people would be talking about sexual harassment now. Publicity opens eyes.

As written, the California law gives school officials the authority to suspend or expel a student for sexually harassing a classmate. It defines sexual harassment as an act that is severe enough “to have a negative impact upon an individual’s academic performance or create an intimidating educational environment.”

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Speaking as an adult, I say that the definition is pretty standard stuff, sensible and grown-up. Regressing with the Ghost of Childhood Past, I say probably half my high school class would be guilty of sexually harassing someone, mostly girls, in the name of having some “fun.”

Which is all the more reason something should be done in the schools today. Too often, fun becomes just another name for what you can get away with. This kind of fun thrives in a void.

So what if lots of grown-ups aren’t even sure what sexual harassment means? Lots of grown-ups still can’t do the “new math.”

The good news about introducing this often uncomfortable topic to kids early on is that maybe by the time they’re grown up, they won’t need any publicity hounds to pry open their eyes about sexual harassment.

Then it will be the harasser, not the victim, who will have the explaining to do.


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