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Dana Parsons

Law on Sex Harassment by Students Could Be Harrying

August 25, 1993|Dana Parsons

The cases haven't begun pouring in yet, and maybe they never will. It's just that the stage is set so perfectly that it's hard to imagine the onslaught not being close at hand.

This will be the first full school year in which California public school students can be suspended or expelled for sexually harassing each other. The law covering harassment took effect Jan. 1, and three Ventura County high school boys were recommended for expulsion in May. Given the explosiveness of the issue and the pent-up frustration it represents, it's probably foolishly naive to assume there won't be a spate of test cases.

Alan Trudell, spokesman for the Garden Grove Unified School District, the county's second largest, said harassment guidelines have been drawn up, and parents and students have been notified of possible consequences of such behavior. Other school districts are doing likewise.

My guess is that school administrators, already laden with enough social-instruction burdens, must be cringing at the thought of adding sexual harassment to the list. Not that they condone it; it's just that they've seen how muddled and volatile such cases get when they involve adults. Now try to imagine zealous parents on one side pushing for a student's suspension, while the accused student's parents argue just as zealously that their kid hasn't done anything that hasn't been done by schoolboys since time immemorial.

It could get ugly.

That's one of the things that Laguna Hills marriage and family therapist Bruce Fredenburg doesn't like about the new state law--namely, that it punishes ingrained behavior without addressing the root causes.

Fredenburg, who also gives seminars on various aspects of male/female relationships, including workplace harassment, doesn't dispute that schoolboys have a knack for harassing schoolgirls. Nor does he minimize the harmful effects of the harassment.

But he fears that merely threatening boys with suspension probably won't do much to alleviate the problem, because behavior toward girls is almost an inevitable result of the way boys are raised from their infancy.

Fredenburg's thesis is that boys learn early on not to cry, not to express raw emotion. The name of the game with other people is "not to let them know they got to us," Fredenburg says, and one way to do that is to act or talk tough. That kind of behavior becomes the norm when boys play, and, not surprisingly, spills over when boys interact with girls.

"Go to the playground," Fredenburg says. "The games are all about hitting and kicking, the struggle for dominance, right out front. We're trained to be heroes, so the struggle for dominance fits right in with our training. It conforms to not having feelings, etc. What happens is confusion when (boys and girls) try to relate to each other. It really is sink or swim on the playground, so when boys come over and do a number on the girls, it's a major shock to the girls because they're not used to treating each other that badly. It's not so much sexual harassment--it's just that boys are trained to harass and attack each other so much. The solution is for society to take a look at that."

Fredenburg argues that much of boys' aggressive behavior toward girls is "spillover" from violence toward each other. "Male violence toward each other is sanctioned by society. You have to teach boys they can't push around boys too. If you focus on the problem of boys being encouraged to be violent toward each other, if they did something about that, that automatically would solve the other problem."

Lisa McClanahan, co-coordinator of a local National Organization for Women chapter, said Fredenburg's thesis would be fine, except that he has it completely backward.

"Of course, we have a society that teaches boys to be violent," she said. "But why? You can't get away from why boys are taught to be violent. You can't talk about boys being violent and not talk about where it comes from. And it's sexism."

Sexism is taught because it serves a purpose, McClanahan said.

Which is? "They get to dominate girls and eliminate half the competition," either in school or in the workplace, eventually. "Dominate them and you get to dictate to them to serve you. That's the purpose it serves."

As such, she said, young boys are taught first to be violent toward females. Any "spillover" of boys being violent toward each other, she said, flows from that.

McClanahan favors the new law, because it addresses the sexism issue. Like Fredenburg, she favors additional school programs or student assemblies on the subject.

I didn't set out to get McClanahan and Fredenburg into an argument. Believe me, they probably agree on many nuances, but they're miles apart on the nub of the issue.

"Do they want a law or do they want a solution?" Fredenburg asks, arguing that suspending a high school sophomore isn't going to dent the harassment problem.

"I think it's great the law is there," McClanahan said. "It's not going to be helped by people like this doctor saying sexism is not the problem. We're talking about harassment. This is about sex."

This is the kind of scenario I pictured, when imagining school officials sitting across a table from dueling parents and students.

I wish them all the luck in the world.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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