There was a time when a kiss was, well, just a kiss. But no longer, not even for innocent young children. Recently, a bespectacled six-year-old boy from North Carolina, Johnathan, was suspended for a day from school and barred from attending a school ice cream party for kissing a girl. Soon after, a seven-year-old Queens boy named De’Andre was also suspended for five days for kissing a girl because, as he explained, “I like her.” Asked why he had torn a button from the girl’s skirt, De’Andre referred softly to Corduroy, the bear with a missing button in his favorite storybook.
The sheer incongruity and unnaturalness, of these punishments triggered a vast media frenzy, revealing public opinion so split as to make one wonder if there remains anything of moral cohesion or common sense in these United States. Branding children as “pint-size perverts,” concluded one pundit, shows that the country is “drowning in paranoia.” A cartoon depicted a child writing on a blackboard that he will “not sexually harass” his classmates, while a teacher admonishes him not to forget his school-issued condoms.
Letter-writers, responding to editorials across the country, pulled out all the stops. One demanded that children charged with sexual harassment be “old enough to cross the street by themselves.” Another warned that extremes of political correctness in schools are instilling “new-age fascism” in children. Yet another lamented the “tragedy of second-grade kissing,” whereby the boy who kisses girls in the second grade will surely “kiss again,” transmogrifying into a “serial kisser.”
Stung by this outcry, various school officials rushed to defend inflexible sexual harassment policies. Authorities at Johnathan’s school justified his punishment by saying that children must be educated about sexual harassment no matter how young they are. “Unwelcome,” they stated, “is unwelcome at any age.” Even hand-holding, Johnathan was told, would be cause for further suspension.
Other members of school official-dom disagreed. A representative to New York City’s Board of Education questioned the appropriateness of “holding little ones” to the same standards to which adults are held within the workplace.
Sundry other parties within school communities queued up on opposing sides. Several students at De’Andre’s school showed no mercy. His kiss was “against the privacy of the female,” said one ten-year-old. But De’Andre’s father expressed fear that his son was being labeled a future rapist and that his future might be ruined by an “adult misconception.”
Lower federal courts have also diverged in their rulings on so-called peer harassment. Several have held that school districts can be held accountable for not forcefully intervening when one student harasses another. A California jury, for example, awarded $500,000 to the family of a sixth-grade girl who said she was tormented almost daily for most of a school year. A male classmate repeatedly threatened her physically, made obscene gestures, and called her “slut” and “whore.” The school district was found to be almost 100 percent liable for the girl’s treatment.
On the other hand, a federal appeals court ruling said that districts in most cases cannot be held liable for so-called peer harassment. In a Texas case, it held that sexual-harassment rules that apply to the workplace should not be applied to students in school.
In all fairness, the depth of the dilemma facing educators should be acknowledged. Frequently they must cope with actual, often grievous, peer harassment (as in the California case cited above) and even peer rape. The law of the land regarding harassment is unclear, and educators’ fear of being sued is often warranted. Some teachers have spoken privately of encounters with venal parents on the lookout for opportunities to litigate.
Educators also may have to contend with rival groups of parents taking sides for or against accused students and their accusers. In the California case, for instance, the school district in question acknowledged reluctance to place students on the witness stand for fear of offending parents.
Moreover, sexual ideologues bring pressure to bear on educators. Some of the “gender equity” specialists foisted on our schools, for example, appear quite capable of viewing a child’s kiss as a sign of universal female oppression—just one example of what columnist John Leo calls the “McCarthyite” approach to sexual harassment.
The busting of tot-kissers, in all its implications, suggests that our society just may have gone stark-raving mad at last. It is mad for adults to claim that kisses among six-year-olds have anything to do with sex. It is also mad to permit real sexual mayhem in schools. Finally, it is mad to have so widely abandoned, at home and in school, the teaching of morals and moral reasoning which once instilled decent behavior and the capacity to know the harmful from the harmless.