Sexual harassment for kids has changed

Published 10:11 am Thursday, May 27, 2010

Boy, have sensitivities changed since I was a kid in the ’70s — especially where sexual harassment is concerned.

I speak of an incident that occurred three years ago at an elementary school in Oregon. According to, two 13-year-old boys were arrested for “slapping girls on the rear end.”

Both spent five days in a juvenile detention joint. Both were charged with several counts of felony sex abuse.

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If convicted, both would have had to be registered lifelong as “sex offenders” — and spend up to 10 years in the clink.

That surely wasn’t the reaction when I was a victim of sexual harassment in my sixth-grade year.

A girl in my class — I’ll call her Susie Smitten — had the hots for me. Who could blame her? I was one of the better “keep-away” players. And even though I had big ears and a bad haircut, I wasn’t a bad catch by sixth-grade standards.

One day during recess, I noticed that Susie was looking at me with misty eyes.

I’d never seen a girl look at me like that before. The only female look I’d known prior was the one my sisters gave me when I failed to change the toilet paper roll when the paper ran out.

During the last month of school, Susie tried multiple times to hold my hand under our desk in biology class.

She followed me into the hall and tried to hug me.

One day she really crossed the line. Our biology class was in the woods, studying leaves, when she tried to blindside me with a kiss.

Tommy Gillen shouted out a warning and I managed to jump from her path. She nicked me, but, for the most part, I got away clean.

Susie’s harassment was relentless, but there was nothing I could do about it.

Had I reported her conduct to our teachers, they wouldn’t have believed me.

Had I told my parents and sisters about it, they would have made fun of me.

And a lawsuit was clearly out of the question.

It was 1973, after all — well before numerous sexual harassment laws were on the books.

It was before women’s groups, such as the American Association of University Women, released numerous studies that claimed sexual harassment is rampant in American schools.

It was before the courts could hold schools responsible for sexual harassment under ambiguous laws.

It was before Congress was appropriating millions of dollars under laws such as the Women’s Educational Equity Act to provide “gender-equity training programs to make boys treat girls more sensitively and to ensure an environment free from sexual harassment and abuse.”

I had little recourse to get Susie to back off — at least until I made it through puberty.

On one hand, it’s good that our society is now more aware of, and sensitive to, legitimate sexual- harassment concerns.

On the other hand, with all our laws, rules, policies, research and advocacy groups in place, aren’t we delegitimizing genuine sexual-harassment cases by overreacting to marginal ones?

Which brings us back to the incident at the Oregon middle school.

Police investigators soon discovered that “slapping girls on the rear end” was a fairly common practice at the school — some girls were doing likewise to boys.

Most agreed that the behavior was inappropriate. But criminal? Four females listed as victims asked the judge to drop the charges and the judge finally did.

According to the News-Register of McMinnville, Ore., a settlement was reached that called for both boys to pay the four girls $250 each, apologize to them and complete a “boundaries education” program, whatever the heck that is.

As I said, sensitivities sure have changed since I was a kid in the ’70s.

Tom Purcell is a humor columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Visit Tom on the web at or e-mail him at