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Al Martinez

'Flirting, when it involves exploitation or intimidation, isn't flirting.' : Teaching Teachers to Behave

April 04, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

Sexual harassment is all the rage this season. It ranks behind only herpes and marital abuse as a topic of personal disclosure, far outscoring the last big out-of-closet revelation, homosexuality.

Women in occupations ranging from high school teacher to prison guard have stepped forward to reveal with appropriate fanfare that someone in their profession has, as they say, made a move on them.

That wouldn't be so bad, I suppose, except that career advancement sometimes depends on the proper response to that move. I don't know what I'd do if I had to sleep with an editor in order to write a column. Sleep with the editor, I suppose.

I began thinking about the problem because a friend, apropos of nothing, said to me recently, "Well, I was sexually harassed today." He was smiling when he said it.

"How?" I asked.

"A woman put her hand on my behind."

"Did you ask her to remove it?"

He looked at me as though I was the biggest fool in the bar.

"Are you kidding? I'd have walked around all day with her hand on my behind if that were possible!"

The friend, whose name is Larry, is a Santa Monica teacher. From his standpoint, being sexually harassed is probably the best thing that ever happened to him. He belongs.

Larry is not alone. According to a recent survey, about 25% of those employed by the Los Angeles School District claim to have been sexually harassed. I don't believe there has been a similar survey in the Santa Monica-Malibu District, but since the teachers here are considerably more attractive, the figure is probably higher.

Not that women teachers don't have enough to do, fighting for their lives each day in rooms filled with stoned-out, knife-carrying members of the Cosa Nostra Apprenticeship Program.

Now they have to fight their way off a principal's couch or resist being lured into auto shop under the pretense of checking out a male colleague's overhead cams.

Other than Larry, the mad mathematician, I had never met anyone who has been sexually harassed. So I went to discuss it with women teachers in Santa Monica and Malibu.

Most of those I encountered said they had been sexually harassed in one way or another. One who had not been said she'd be interested. All dealt with the harassment in their own way. Debbie, for instance, turned a gym teacher into a soprano.

The most flagrant case I found involved Helen. A principal, in exchange for Helen's tenure, put his hand on a personal place on her body and suggested they discuss her future.

Helen, a guerrilla fighter in the feminist movement, grabbed the principal by the seat of his shiny trousers and dragged him down the hallway. True, she never got tenure, but he never made superintendent either.

Only one teacher would allow use of her name. Linda Kovaric is an exceptionally attractive woman in her mid-30s. But if you're thinking of sexually harassing anyone, don't try it on Linda. She teaches biology and English and would know precisely what you're about.

Moves have been made on her many times. In one case, a married principal asked her away for a weekend. "It's all right with me," she replied, "but I think we ought to check with your wife to see if she minds." Scratch one weekend.

What especially annoys her is the patting and pinching that goes on. "My bottom," she announced to one pincher, "is not public property. Pinch off!"

"Sexual harassment is a gray area," Linda said. "Flirting is innocent and everyone does it. But when it involves exploitation or intimidation, it isn't flirting."

Linda similarly dislikes sexual bias. In applying for a job once she was asked if she were a virgin. "Would you ask a man if he were a virgin?" she demanded.

No need to. A man would wink and say, "Not since I was 6." Har har, ho ho, elbow in the ribs.

It's a new world, folks. When I was a kid, women teachers were old maids. They would not have tolerated harassment. But if you mentioned it, you damned well had to be able to spell it.

Old Lady Monlux caught me peeking in the girls' showers in the fourth grade. There were three of us. We climbed on each other's shoulders to reach a high window at the back of the gym. I was on top when she caught us so she made me write a 100-word essay on what I had seen.

The next day, she read it to the class. I'm still not certain whether the moment represented my birth as a writer or my death as an adequate, outgoing human being. Possibly both.

Perhaps today's women teachers ought to apply the same principle in dealing with sexual harassment by their male colleagues. Flip on the old public address system and:

"Attention please. I would like to announce that Mr. McMillan, who teaches fifth-period wood shop, suggested I join him Friday for a roll in the hay. Since I am otherwise occupied, interested parties with hay and a free Friday may sign up in the main office."

I'm not sure it would solve the problem, but it would certainly make an impact. I know I never peeked in a girls' shower room again.

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