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October 02, 1994|NINA J. EASTON | Magazine staff writer Nina J. Easton's last piece for the magazine was "The Merchants of Virtue," about the men leading the GOP's crusade for values

When Jane Doe heard the smutty story, she acted like any normal sixth-grader: She giggled, got "grossed out" and passed the rumor on to her friends. Then, in the fall she entered seventh grade, where she became the target of the very same rumor. Boys and girls from her Petaluma junior high taunted her between class, during class, after school: "Hey, I hear you had sex with a hot dog" or "I wonder what kind of hot dog she prefers" or just plain "hot dog."

The abuse made Jane grow up fast, too fast. By the middle of eighth grade, she had stopped riding her bike to friends' houses or designing dresses for her paper dolls, instead locking herself in her bedroom while she listened to Ugly Kid Joe belt out "I hate everything about you" over and over. By then, her depression and anger had grown so deep, the only way her parents could think to rescue her was to relocate. They moved 30 miles up the highway, leaving behind their schools, their friends, their church.

When Richard Homrighouse first heard the hot dog rumor, from Jane and her father, he acted as he believed a competent guidance counselor should: He listened sympathetically, told them the behavior was unacceptable, and warned one of the boys. Four years later, Homrighouse would find himself sitting before a legal reporter, racking his brain for every detail of that and other encounters with the straw-blond girl he had befriended in 1990.

What Homrighouse said or didn't say, did or didn't do, during his encounters with Jane Doe, as she is known to protect her anonymity, is at the heart of a lawsuit she has filed against Homrighouse and the Petaluma schools. Doe's lawyers say there is a name for the kind of bullying Jane endured: "sexual harassment." And by failing to stop it, they contend, the school violated Title IX of the federal Education Amendments of 1972.

Terms such as sexual harassment are increasingly entering the lexicon of the schoolyard, and in this post-Anita Hill era, adults are hastily borrowing from their own experience to explain--and cope with--childhood breaches of civil behavior. We know that sexual language and innuendo are common to children, particularly junior high students as they stumble awkwardly into puberty. The question is: Should we be using legal action, rather than families or school mediation and education, to try to socialize young people? And what will happen if we do?

The Petaluma case has become a cause celebre for feminist groups and could have far-reaching consequences on how educators address a discipline problem as old as co-ed schools. Ever since 1988, when another Petaluma mother complained to the federal government about her daughter's abuse, the U.S. Department of Education has quietly pressured school districts to treat tawdry teasing, even among elementary-school children, as illegal sexual harassment. Defense lawyers in the Doe case will challenge that practice, contending that the department broke its own rules when it construed Title IX, historically used to attain equity in girls' sports programs and the like, to outlaw schoolyard name-calling.

Women's rights groups, meanwhile, see this issue as the latest front in their battle for gender equity. They hope the judge in the Doe case will clearly delineate a school's obligation to protect students from vulgar verbal assaults. The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights "has been investigating and resolving complaints but without clear guidance," says Ellen Vargyas, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center. "People at all levels are struggling with the issue. We know what the model is in employment. But we also know the workplace is different from schools."

Feminist legal experts like Vargyas contend that a school has an even broader obligation to stop harassment than an employer. If the court upholds that interpretation, school districts will rush to cover their legal backsides with policies designed to treat sexual teasing differently than other discipline problems. "What responsibility do the schools have, versus the parents?" asks Scott N. Kivel, attorney for the Petaluma schools and formerly a school principal. "Are we trying to protect our children from every wrong? If every offensive comment is going to bring litigation, we're not giving children a sense of reality that they have to deal with these situations."

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