Columnists > Voices

Less than zero

Moral confusion reigns in student sexual harassment rules

Issue: "Food fight," May 3, 2008

What do you get when you cross a "Zero Tolerance" policy with a 6-year-old boy? A police report.

No joke: Last fall Randy Castro smacked a female classmate on the bottom during recess at their school in Prince William County, Va. She told the teacher. In the old days, Randy would have been called in from recess and given a talking-to and a warning. But now we're much more alert to male aggression. Randy soon found himself in the principal's office, the subject of an incident report that labeled his obnoxious little-boy behavior as "Sexual Touching Against Student, Offensive." It was enough of an offense to call the police.

Again, no joke. The cops did not arrive immediately with sirens wailing, but they did stop by the school after dismissal. And Randy did not go to jail as he feared, but the "Offensive" incident is still on his record, an implied warning to future teachers: Troublemaker.

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School officials admitted that calling the cops was an overreaction, but, according to Randy's mother, "the principal told me they were making reports to the police every single day."

Whether or not law enforcement is so integral to education, it's a fact that 255 elementary school students in Virginia were suspended for "sexual touching" incidents last year alone. Other states report a similar crime wave. The epidemic of sexual harassment has spread even to preschool: A teacher's aide in Texas felt harassed when a 4-year-old's full-body hug included pressing his face into her chest.

"Zero Tolerance" policies have earned the sneer quotes often pasted on them. When a 13-year-old honor student in Arizona is strip-searched on the unfounded suspicion of possessing double-strength Tylenol, when a third-grader in Colorado is suspended for sniffing Magic Marker ink, when butter knives are treated as offensive weapons in South Carolina, school officials might as well brace for ridicule. But Mary Kay Sommers, President of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, insists that in today's litigious culture they have no choice. "There's no way these [elementary school] children know what's going on. But it's been taken out of our hands. That's the difficult moral dilemma that we face."

A difficult moral dilemma, or total moral confusion? After decades of experimentation have eroded biblical standards, chaos looms. In fact, when students are beating up teachers in the classroom, chaos has arrived. Zero Toleration policies attempt to halt the slide and nip bad behavior in the bud. But administrative overreach often nips the bud.

Randy Castro's mother reports that since the "Incident" he's been calling himself a bad boy. Theologically, he is a bad boy, as the little girl he swatted is a bad girl and the principal and secretary are bad grown-ups. "There is none who does good, no not one." The doctrine of Zero Toleration is a perverted and misapplied version of Total Depravity.

Perverted, because it forces too much information on unformed minds. What first-grader accused of "sexual touching" will not develop skewed ideas of both sexual and touching? "If it had not been for the law," says Paul, "I would not have known sin." But there is a time for every purpose, and first-graders generally don't have enough perspective to confront the hidden causes of their bad behavior.

Misapplied, because it scapegoats certain offenders in order to "send a message" to the rest of the herd. Thus the authorities can reassure themselves that they are holding the line against an onslaught of sex, drugs, and violence. Meanwhile, the message being sent is that standards are arbitrary-as they must be when man, not God, sets the parameters.

While an honor student is being strip-searched in the nurse's office for contraband Tylenol, a dropout is peddling crack in an apartment around the corner, and the police who should be dealing with that are answering a call about a 6-year-old sex offender. What's wrong with this picture is we've lost the frame.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to jcheaney@worldmag.com.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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