For Little Children, Grown-Up Labels As Sexual Harassers
Thursday, April 3, 2008
In his seven years, Randy Castro has been an aspiring soccer player, an accomplished Lego architect and a Royal Ranger at his Pentecostal church. He also, according to his elementary school record, sexually harassed a first-grade classmate.
During recess at his Woodbridge school one day in November, when he was 6, he said, he smacked the classmate's bottom. The girl told the teacher. The teacher took Randy to the principal, who told him such behavior was inappropriate. School officials wrote an incident report calling it "Sexual Touching Against Student, Offensive," which will remain on his student record permanently.
Then, as Randy sat in the principal's office, they called the police.
"I thought they were going to take me to prison," Randy said recently. "I was scared."
Prince William County school officials would not comment on Randy's case, citing student confidentiality. They said the call to police was the result of a misunderstanding.
Randy is only one of many children to be dealt with harshly as schools across the country grapple with enforcing new zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies and the fear of litigation.
The Virginia Department of Education reported that 255 elementary students were suspended last year for offensive sexual touching, or "improper physical contact against a student." In Maryland, 166 elementary school children were suspended last year for sexual harassment, including three preschoolers, 16 kindergartners and 22 first-graders, according to the State Department of Education. Statistics for the District were not available.
In 2006, a kindergartner in Hagerstown, Md., was accused of sexual harassment after pinching a female classmate's buttocks. A 4-year-old in Texas was given an in-school suspension after a teacher's aide accused him of sexual harassment for pressing his face into her breasts when he hugged her.
Ted Feinberg, assistant director of the National Association of School Psychologists in Bethesda, said he had never come across a case of sexual harassment in elementary school in his three decades in the schools. To label somebody a sexual harasser at 6 "doesn't make sense to me," he said. "Kids can be exploratory in behavior, they can mimic what they see on TV."
Randy sat on the lower bunk in his bedroom recently and explained what happened Nov. 26 on the playground at Potomac View Elementary School. Katherine DeLeon, a classmate who regularly came over to play, was kneeling on a bench, talking to friends. He said he saw another boy race over to the girl, whack her on the bottom and run away, giggling and pretending he hadn't done it. He did it twice more, Randy said.
Randy said he thought it looked like fun, so he joined in, hitting her and running away twice. "Every time he hit her, she laughed," Randy said. "When I hit her, she told the teacher."
Katherine's mother, Margarita DeLeon, who was contacted by school officials shortly after the incident, said that her daughter didn't like being hit but that she quickly forgot about it. "We didn't pay attention to it, because we know it's just children playing around," she said. "He didn't mean anything by it. I'm upset with the school."