Petaluma, the quiet farming-turned-bedroom community of 47,000 north of San Francisco, is typical of the towns across America where "peer-on-peer sexual harassment" is being played out. Gangs and guns in school are still remote, and, mostly, the kids here get in trouble for alcohol and cigarettes and fights. What added to the horror of last year's kidnaping and murder of local girl Polly Klaas was precisely the ordinariness of the place: Wide sidewalks and huge supermarkets and affordable houses in developments sprawling east of the 101 freeway. Even the town's underlying social drama seems almost quaint: Eastsiders newly ensconced in their tract houses feel they can't get a fair shake from an Establishment controlled by the westsiders living across the railroad tracks, smug in their lovely Victorian homes and spending their old money in the antique stores now dotting Petaluma's vintage downtown. Kenilworth Junior High, which Jane attended, is an eastsider school tucked under the shade of the freeway.
Jane Doe's dad is a firefighter, and her mom worked as an office administrator until a bad back forced her to quit. The defense attorneys want to portray Jane as an angry underachiever who has had to live in the shadow of her older sister, a track star and honor student. They question the motives of parents who hired an attorney to consider legal action after reading about the earlier Petaluma case, which resulted in a $20,000 settlement--an agreement, they hasten to add, that was made by the school's insurance company without its consent.
Doe's attorneys, meanwhile, depict Homrighouse as a middle-aged man who still subscribes to the outdated notion that "boys will be boys." Feminist groups say Homrighouse, 53, and his school are examples of how America's education Establishment has dropped the ball on sexual harassment. "Why did they throw their hands up in the air and remain passive?" asks Doe attorney Maria Blanco, staff lawyer at San Francisco's Equal Rights Advocates. "Or did they believe it was not that serious?"
Doe's side faces an admittedly steep legal hill: Under an earlier ruling in the case, they must prove that the school intentionally discriminated against Jane because of her gender. They also must make a case that girls can sexually harass other girls, something Blanco says has already been established in the workplace. Jane's lawsuit focuses on the behavior of boys, but it is clear from her own words that the most vicious bullies were the Kenilworth girls who wore Raiders jackets and too much makeup and ran together as the tough crowd. "The girls were more spiteful," Jane recalls, in an interview granted after much negotiation with her lawyers. "If a girl wanted to get into a fight with me, she'd call me a 'hot dog' or something like that."
But her $1-million lawsuit could have implications far beyond any new legal ground it may hoe. Its mere filing poses troubling questions about how we should admonish childhood aggressors. Do we tell them their behavior is wrong, or that it is illegal? What do we want to teach them about the role of the courts and the government in settling interpersonal disputes? What will be the impact of attaching an adversarial adult label such as "sexual harassment" to broad categories of childhood behavior? Are we helping our children connect across the gender divide, or are we drawing new battle lines?
To the feminist attorneys and educators leading the crusade on schoolyard sexual harassment, the issue presents a tempting opportunity to shape the behavior of boys before they turn into abusive men. Nan Stein, project director at Wellesley College's Center for Research on Women, calls today's schools "training grounds for domestic violence." There are plenty of horror stories for Stein to draw on: the Spur Posse's game of sexual conquests in Lakewood; newspaper descriptions of "whirlpooling" in New York City pools, where boys surround girls to rip off their bathing suits; the trial of boys in a New Jersey suburb accused of gang-raping a mentally disabled girl.
The everyday sexual teasing that goes on outside the glare of news cameras can be equally disturbing. First-graders on a bus in Minnesota shout about sexual acts they couldn't possibly understand. Fifth-graders in Missouri rub their penises through their pants to embarrass the girls. In Maryland, elementary-school girls try to kiss boys' genitals; the boys, in turn, jump on the girls' backs, crotches pressed against the girls' buttocks, in a stunt called "nutting." Teen-agers at an elite Los Angeles high school use their computers to publish a newsletter filled with lurid descriptions of the supposed sexual habits of the popular female clique.