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For Little Children, Grown-Up Labels As Sexual Harassers

Randy Castro spanked a classmate.
Randy Castro spanked a classmate. (By Giuliana Nakashima -- The Washington Post)
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Claudia Castro, a preschool teacher in Alexandria, said she was shocked when officials at Randy's school called to say that he was in trouble and that they were calling the police. She later met with the principal and assistant principal. "I told them that what he did was not appropriate. And I have talked to him about it. What I don't understand is how you can make a police report on a 6-year-old. But the principal told me that they were making reports to the police every single day."

The school's incident report, provided to The Washington Post by Randy's family, says the "police were contacted" after the playground episode. Police arrived after dismissal, when Randy had already gone home. Castro said she shared the story with The Post in the hope of changing school policy.

Days before the incident, at a routine meeting with district officials, principals had been reminded to report threats and assaults to the police. "There was some confusion as to what level of threat and assault we were talking about," said Ken Blackstone, a school system spokesman.

Some officials and students said Potomac View administrators made an announcement that a new district policy required them to inform the police of student misbehavior. But Blackstone said there was no new policy. After the meeting, he said, principals were confused about when to call police. "As a result, there were too many calls that may not have been necessary because of people wanting to comply with the initial request."

"Some of the calls," Prince William police spokeswoman Ericka Hernandez said, "were about incidents the police did not have to be involved in."

Blackstone pointed to the school district's code of behavior, which states that police may be called for "offenses involving weapons, alcohol/drugs, intentional injury, and other serious violations."

Two school board members declined to comment on the case, and Blackstone would not make the Potomac View principal available for comment.

Mary Kay Sommers, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said suspensions and calls to the police in such cases are overkill. The correct response, she said, would be to explore whether the behavior is linked to abuse and to teach students about respecting peers and what constitutes "good touch" or "bad touch."

"There's no way these children understand what's going on. But it's been taken out of our hands. That's the difficult moral dilemma that we face," Sommers said. She blamed two Supreme Court decisions from the 1990s that enable suits against school districts for failing to stop sexual harassment as well as zero-tolerance policies aimed at middle and high school students that are applied to students as young as 5.

"We need to make sure that we follow the letter of the law, so being reasonable sometimes gets lost," she said.

But Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, said educators do have some leeway: "Zero tolerance does not mean zero good judgment."

Since November, Randy has been calling himself a "bad boy," his mother said.

Castro said school officials rejected her appeal to remove the sexual harassment incident from Randy's permanent file. And now she worries that they have branded him a troublemaker.

She points to an incident in January when Randy was suspended for three days for verbal "harassment" and inappropriate behavior. According to the principal's incident report, as Randy walked home from school, he told two girls to kiss and asked another student, "Are you gay?" and "Why are you wearing girl's boots?"

Randy and his siblings, who were walking with him that day, dispute the account. They said he teased an older boy and girl about kissing. He said if the boy didn't kiss the girl, it meant he was gay. Randy said he learned the word on TV.

School officials, citing confidentiality, declined to comment on the incident.

Castro agreed that Randy's behavior was inappropriate but worried that he is being too severely scrutinized because of the spanking incident. "My feeling is that they are picking on him," she said.

Castro said she met again with school officials and asked why, if they were concerned about Randy, he wasn't in counseling. "The counselor told me he didn't need it," she said.


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