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The Buss Fuss

With a Simple Kiss, a First-Grader Has Sparked a Debate on How to Teach Kids to Respect One Another

September 27, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnathan Gray Prevette loves soccer, spelling, ice cream and kissing. Unfortunately, it seems, not in that order.

Johnathan, as nearly all the world knows by now, is the tow-headed kid with the thickglasses and the silly smile whose kisser has been plastered all over the news this week.

Johnathan, can you spell Sex-u-al Har-ass-ment?

That's the phrase Lexington, N.C., school officials first used to describe the 6-year-old's crime, after he was pulled out of class for a day last week as punishment for kissing a female classmate.

But after days of international pummeling in the media, the school administration now has reduced its charges against the boy to "unwarranted and unwelcome touching."

Whatever you call it--and whatever really happened between Johnathan and his unnamed 6-year-old "victim"--the "Kiss That Shook the Nation," as one newspaper called it, is still sending tremors through Johnathan's leafy little mill town of 16,000.

All along Main Street, which runs about six blocks, the talk is of nothing else. And on Peacock Avenue, where the kissing bandit resides with his parents and big brother Christopher, 9, camera crews from Ireland to Australia stand ready to record Johnathan's every entrance, exit and soccer kick.

"This is really, really somethin'," marvels Johnathan's dad, Calvin Prevette, 46. David Letterman has called. So has Jenny Jones, Montel Williams and, of course, the Family Channel.

And a radio station in Ohio is sending the sweet-toothed boy 60 gallons of ice cream to make up for the frozen treats he missed at a perfect attendance party last week because of the detention.

Johnathan, according to his parents, did have a perfect attendance record until he was sent off to "High Management" (another name for in-school suspension) for touching his lips to his classmate's cheek.

He missed school on Wednesday as well. "He was tuckered out from gettin' up at 3 a.m. to talk to Katie Couric on the 'Today Show,' " Johnathan's father said.

Jackie Prevette, 31, said the Southwest Elementary School principal gave her a copy of the system's handbook with the sexual harassment policy highlighted in yellow when she tried to appeal her son's punishment last Friday. When the parents called a local radio show to vent their outrage, they reignited the political correctness debate.

"Does a child of 6 need to worry about such a thing?" wonders Calvin Prevette, a disabled, out-of-work trucker. "He doesn't know nothing--nothing!--about sex. He's just a real affectionate little guy who told me that little girl sometimes kisses him and he likes it just fine. This isn't about correctness; it's about common sense!"

When students went back to school this fall, school administrators throughout the nation were greeted with warnings about their new responsibilities to protect students from sexual harassment. Over the summer, three federal courts ruled that school districts, and perhaps school officials themselves, could be forced to pay damages to former students who were ridiculed, embarrassed or grabbed in hallways or on school buses. Those cases involved two girls and one gay boy--all students aged 12 or older.

In California, the state education code requires each district to have a policy on sexual harassment, but does not require such policies below fourth grade. "Situations regarding kindergarten through third grade would be handled on an individual basis," according to Christine Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the Santa Ana Unified School District.

How severely a school would respond to a gesture as seemingly innocent as Johnathan's would be determined by how traumatized the recipient was or how upset his or her parents were, says Sanchez.

While acknowledging that kissing among primary-grade students "probably happens so quickly that, most of the time, it doesn't even get noticed," school officials should probably report such behavior to parents, says Barry Zolotar, deputy general counsel for the California Department of Education.

Kissing between preschoolers and children in the primary grades is extremely common and usually harmless, notes clinical psychologist Susan M. Bergmann, an Oakland child development specialist. Unwanted kisses are another matter, she said, but "to call this sexual harassment is ridiculous. If he kissed someone who didn't want to be kissed, let's not call it sexual harassment. Let's call it naughty."

Citing privacy laws, the Lexington school district has refused to discuss details of Johnathan's behavior or academic achievement, or to name the girl or her parents.

Some observers, including leaders of the National Organization for Women, worry that the publicity surrounding the now famous smooch may trivialize the seriousness of all sexual harassment claims.

Boys should be taught to respect girls and their bodies, says NOW President Patricia Ireland. Or, as the Lexington school district's press officer Jane Martin explained to the Prevettes, "Unwelcome [behavior] is unwelcome at any age."

Speaking of unwelcome, this latest outbreak of interest in the once sweet and sleepy town of Lexington is especially painful, say city boosters.

The last resident to land in the international spotlight was Sheriff Gerald Hege, who refers to himself as "the man," and who in August won instant fame for ordering inmates to paint their cell blocks pink. When they complained, he had them go back to stencil in teary-eyed blue teddy bears.

Hege, who recently cashed in by filming a soft drink commercial, has been unavailable for comment on the trials of Lexington's newest offender.

* Staff writer Shari Roan contributed to this report.

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