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School sexual harassment claims: instances of acting bad or overreacting?

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Hunter Yelton, the 6-year-old Colorado boy tagged with a two-day school suspension for kissing a female classmate, is back in school. And though his actions, per Cañon City School District officials, constituted sexual harassment, his disciplinary offense has now been downgraded to “misconduct.” Meanwhile other schools seemingly continue on high alert for such infractions with central Texas no exception as an email sent this week to Salado ISD parents appears a new effort in taking some of the “physical” out of physical education.

A Dec. 11 email from a Salado Intermediate School teacher stated:

From: mhyer@saladoisd.org
To: mhyer@saladoisd.org
CC: mhyer@saladoisd.org; beth.aycock@saladoisd.org
Subject: SIS PE Rule
Date: Wed, 11 Dec 2013 19:22:13 +0000

Dear Parents of 4-6th Graders at SIS,

I have started a new consequence in PE classes for 4-6th Grades.

We are having a problem with students touching other students. Mostly innocent and just “horsing around”. However, with the numbers of kids in each PE class and One teacher, it is difficult to monitor to make sure the “horsing around” does not turn into something else.

The new policy will be, if your child touches any other student during PE, they will be sent to call parents and tell them what happened and also write 100 sentences that they will not touch others in Physical Education. The sentences will be due the next day.

My biggest concern in PE is for the kids to be safe and still continue to have fun.

Thank you.

If you have any questions or concerns please feel free to contact me by email or my office number. 254-947-6948

Melissa Hyer

SIS PE

Overreactions hurt public support, create questions of credibility

While not a sexual harassment case, some central Texans questioned a school administration’s overreaction a year ago with the suspension of Logan Coufal, a Rogers High School student suspended from school and sentenced to a 20-day Disciplinary Alternative Education Placement (DAEP) for possession of a machete, a commonly-used farm tool deemed an “illegal knife” by Rogers school officials.

During a high school parking lot sweep, a drug dog “hit” identified a bottle of Zicam, an over-the-counter cold remedy two years past its expiration date, in Coufal’s truck. Further searching of his vehicle, a farm truck shared by the high school junior and his father, revealed a machete used for clearing brush and other farm-related activities.

Rogers is a central Texas town of about 1,200 residents with a school district comprising less than 900 students. It’s an agricultural community. District administrators and school board members seemed unable or unwilling to integrate this orientation into their decision-making process thus creating legitimate concerns over their capacity for real responsiveness and understanding as unique situations arise.

Juvenile discipline using mature labels

“This is nothing that involves law enforcement,” Cañon City School Superintendent Dr. Robin Gooldy told the Cañon City Daily Record. “It’s strictly a school discipline issue.”

He went on to explain how the district’s sexual harassment policy is a school board policy based on the law that addresses sexual harassment. The Daily Record further reported:

The policy is in place for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, however, Gooldy said the sexual harassment allegations are rare and when they do come up, it’s with older students.

Federal influence revealed

The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has an interesting take saying “in Barack Obama’s America, even a small boy can become a sexual suspect” and that school officials are following orders from Washington in aggressively labeling and pursuing sexual harassment cases.

He explained:

In April 2011 Russlynn Ali, then assistant education secretary for civil rights, issued a directive in which she threatened to withhold federal money from any educational institution that failed to take a hard enough line against sexual misconduct to ensure “that all students feel safe in their school.” The directive’s preamble declared: “The sexual harassment of students, including sexual violence, interferes with students’ right to receive an education free from discrimination and, in the case of sexual violence, is a crime.”

The Ali directive has received attention mostly for its application in higher education, including our Saturday exposé of Auburn University’s comically unprofessional and shockingly unjust Discipline Committee. But the mandate to prevent and punish “sexual harassment” applies to all educational institutions that receive federal funding, including elementary and secondary schools.

“If a school knows or reasonably should know about student-on-student harassment that creates a hostile environment, Title IX [of a 1972 civil rights law] requires the school to take immediate action to eliminate the harassment, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects,” Ali wrote. The music teacher and other school officials were faithfully if ridiculously executing that command when they investigated the tip from the kids who tattled.

The Ali directive does stipulate that “the specific steps in a school’s investigation will vary depending upon . . . the age of the student or students involved (particularly in elementary and secondary schools).” But that’s the only allowance it makes for the difference between small children and physically mature adolescents and adults. It includes no acknowledgment even of the existence of innocent children’s play, much less any exhortation not to get carried away like they did in Cañon City.

In what he calls “an example of a dire and widespread problem,” Taranto says sexual harassment rules are “ostensibly sex-neutral, but in practice they are used primarily to police male behavior.” The Hunter Yelton story, he contends, demonstrates “the war on men is also a war on little boys.”

While the term is getting overused, the realities of these “wars” should be acknowledged. Also to be acknowledged, though, is this threat of withholding funds if students feeling safe in their schools isn’t achieved. No one argues the worthiness of secure environments, but school administrators feeling unsafe with regard to a steady supply of federal funds creates its own set of problems.

Let’s also remember, the dangers of overreacting to issues like alleged sexual harassment can be as harmful as ignoring them.

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