Case in point: 7-year-old Mark Curran, a Boston first-grader, was recently accused of sexual harassment. He got into trouble for kicking a classmate in the crotch after the classmate allegedly choked him.
Though outside observers might see the incident as a simple case of self-defense, Curran’s mother said that the school told her that it would be treated as sexual harassment due to inappropriate touching. After a school investigation, both boys were transferred to new schools within their district and no charges were filed with the police.
In North Carolina, a 9-year-old student was suspended from school for two days after a substitute teacher overheard him tell a fellow classmate that he thought his regular teacher was “cute.” That’s it, that’s all the kid said.
A spokeswoman for the school district defended the disciplinary action on the grounds that such remarks are “inappropriate.” When students, regardless of their age, come to the attention of a school’s administration—especially if one of them has had his or her private parts hurt—you would expect a full and thorough accounting of what happened. But it’s ridiculous for adults to slap a contentious label like “sexual harassment” on incidents involving young children while still investigating what actually happened.
In fact, it’s just plain crazy—but we’re living on a 24-hour news and entertainment crazy-go-round.
Adults are increasingly seeing children in highly sexualized roles. I’ve previously written about how toddlers and young children are exploited by lingerie and cosmetics marketers, reality TV beauty pageants, talent show competitions, and the adults who consume such products and entertainment. At the same time, adults are flooded with data reinforcing the notion that children are in constant sexual peril.
A November study by the American Association of University Women said that almost half of seventh- to 12th-grade boys and girls—children as young as 11—experienced sexual harassment defined as “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” That would be alarming if it weren’t so vague and wide-ranging: Examples included “unwelcome sexual comments, jokes or gestures,” sexual rumors or information, and inappropriate touching or sexual intimidation.
Up until last week, you may have been forgiven for imagining that legions of young children and teens in America were wantonly sending each other naked pictures. As we’ve learned from the newest data reported in the journal Pediatrics, only one in 100 children 10 to 17 years old has sent images graphic enough to violate child pornography laws. That study and others have found that “sexting” is actually more common among adults.
Obviously, responsible adults need to take any incidences of true sexual harassment or sexting between children seriously and provide appropriate intervention, but we really need to get a grip here. Despite the steady diet of both fiction and facts about childhood sexuality, young children cannot be treated as adults, or slapped with labels they aren’t even old enough to understand.
“This is the sort of school zero-tolerance I think of as institutionalized stupidity,” said Lenore Skenazy, the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids.” I called her to get her take on whether adults are mistakenly projecting their own sexual experiences on kids or whether we’re just a society fearful of litigation. We decided it’s both.
“Of course nobody is supposed to sexually demean students or teachers in a school community that counts on fairness and respect. But we’ve gotten to the point where we’re so eager to nip anything in the bud, that you have the institutionalization of umbrage,” Skenazy told me, adding that she recently ran across a news story about an assistant principal who called the police on two 12-year-olds sharing their first kiss in a middle-school hallway only to have the officer inform her that a kiss between two children is not a sex crime.
“We need perspective—saying your teacher is ‘cute’ cannot become the equivalent of stating ‘I’d like to rape and kill my teacher,’” Skenazy said. “That’s worst-first thinking fueled by our hair-trigger society where anything remotely involving sex or children warrants a 36-point headline and possibly a day in court.”
Children need our respect as well as our protection. Adults, let’s set aside our personal hang-ups and fear of frivolous lawsuits and instead start modeling some grown-up thinking.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com.