The now-infamous case of Jonathan Prevette, the six-year-old boy from Lexington, N.C. who was suspended for kissing a classmate, has drawn attention to scholastic sexual harassment policies nationwide and in the Durham area.
Prevette, who violated his school's policy prohibiting "unwarranted and unwelcome touching of one student by another," received an in-school suspension, which banned him from attending an ice cream party for students with perfect attendance. As officials in Lexington attempt to address the issue by reviewing their policy, many people question the need for any official sexual harassment policy for children-many of whom are too young to understand what the term means.
The Durham public school system's policy on sexual harassment applies to students as well as faculty members. According to the policy drafted by the school system's Board of Education, sexual harassment is classified as any behavior of a sexual nature that "has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with... a student's educational performance, or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment."
Although sexual harassment policies in school systems are required by law, they are not always enforced. Locally, the decision of whether to enforce the policy is usually left up to Durham public schools' teachers and administrators.
"I don't consider a child liking another child sexual harassment," said Clara Ann Crutchfield, principal of Durham's Easley Elementary School. "This is going way overboard. It shouldn't be that little fella's claim to fame."
At Easley Elementary, Crutchfield said, the teacher would first explain to the child that such a display of affection is not appropriate in school and if the problem recurred, the teacher would set up a parent conference. Disciplinary action is only taken if the child continues the inappropriate behavior after counseling by teacher and parent, she said.
Durham Pubic School officials agreed that their sexual harassment policy should be flexible for young children.
"The age of innocence is dropping these days, but I don't know if it goes down as far as six," said Shirley Johnson, Durham public schools' executive director for student support services. "While the policy really covers all of the students in the Durham school system, younger students are, of course, handled differently."
Johnson said that each situation should be dealt with in an age-appropriate manner and that a warning and a phone call to parents almost always follow the first offense.
Meanwhile, people are now wondering what will become of Prevette.
"This could be traumatic for him," Johnson said. "This incident could have a great impact on whether he becomes a school success or a school failure in the future."
Parents of young children who attend schools in the Triangle area agree with the education experts.
"I feel it's ridiculous," said Alan Clark, a Raleigh resident and parent of a nine year-old boy. "I don't think that a kid that age understands sexual harassment. I am astounded that the school system could make a decision like that."
Although the Prevette case has brought the issue back into the public eye, many people are worried that sexual harassment will no longer be taken as a serious offense.
"It is important to educate children so that when they become of appropriate age they will know how to express themselves in the correct way," said Kathy Harrelson, administrator for the Greensboro Commission for Women. "The school administration in Lexington had to follow protocol to avoid being accused of preferential treatment." And although she agreed that Prevette should not have been punished for sexual harassment, the public response to the incident has been healthy and productive.
"The case has generated a lot of dialogue about the issue of sexual harassment," Harrelson said. "I don't believe that this will hurt efforts to stop sexual harassment. People will still take it seriously."