Grade-School Harassment

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski, Ph.D. and Mary Kay Sommers
Director of Public Policy, National Association of School Psychologists and President, National Association of Elementary School Principals
Thursday, April 3, 2008; 1:00 PM

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.

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski, Ph.D. and director of Public Policy for the National Association of School Psychologists, and Mary Kay Sommers, Ph.D. and president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, were online Thursday, April 3, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss how schools across the country grapple with enforcing new zero-tolerance sexual harassment policies and the fear of litigation.

A transcript follows.


Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: I'm glad to be here today to answer your questions about this story.


NW, D.C.: My wife is a teacher and trust me, little boys do have crushes on teachers. I had quite a few in my day that I still remember. But where was the sense of judgment in the principal? I could see a report on abuse (because the kid obviously gets spankings at home) versus sexual harassment. Really, this kind of shows a naivete on the [part of the] principal.

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: I think it is important to understand the definition of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is "unwanted and unwelcome sexual behavior." For this definition to apply in this case the 6 year old had to understand that a spanking could be intended and construed as sexual behavior. Most six year olds don't have a clue yet about what sex is and consequently, it is very unlikely that if we consider the developmental awareness of the youngster that we should consider this misconduct as being delivered with a sexual intent. It is more appropriate to consider this misconduct as being linked to a common issue with 6 years--"to hit or not to hit." Most first graders are learning the difference and it probably would have been more appropriate to consider the behavior within that context.


Leesburg, Va.: Do you think there is a relation to the schools having to have this zero tolerance and the fact that many children are not shielded from adult-themed music and television?

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: It is important for parents to constantly monitor the content of the media that their children are exposed to. This is no easy task. However, it is critical as children are little learning sponges and are constantly soaking in everything that they are exposed to. The messages in all types of media are teaching are children whether we want them to or not. The challenge for parents, teachers, and other educators is to be awared that we consciously teach children the desirable ways to behave and interact with others. We need to instruct them on social skills, communication, interpersonal conflict, etc. in a precise and intentional way. If children don't learn these lessons from us, they will learn them somewhere and the media is available and accessible to teach them.


Mary Kay Sommers: Hello,

Dr. Mary Kay Sommers joining the discussion.

I look forward to answering your questions.


Anonymous: This story is scary in some regards. We keep hearing of these cases of bizarre school system justice. I recall the kid being suspended over skittles. How should these school administrators handle these situations. They seem way overboard.

Mary Kay Sommers: How principals respond to difficult situations is usually determined by school board policy. Often principals are expected to ask the designated administrator for advice in the tricky situations. District policies reflect state laws and local interpretations making them the key guidelines for principals to use when making decisions.


Rockville, Md.: Hi,

This is article is timely and I'm sending it to my sister, who is currently an elementary school substitute teacher in Pittsburgh. She mentioned yesterday that one male child in her class is secluded from the other children because of his inappropriate touching of girls. He will actually touch girls in the no-no areas. My sister was suspecting some level of sexual abuse that this male child has been through. Is there any evidence of this in young children?


Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: Young children who persistently engage in inappropriate touching or sexual acting out are often victims of abuse. It is critical that if a teacher ever suspects abuse with a youngster that they report it to the authorities. However, in some cases, it is also possible that these children have not actually been phsycially or sexually abused themselves, but they are regularly exposed to adult content in movies or TV or discussions in the home or other care setting. It is important that adults always consider whether the content of shows, video games or movies are appropriate for young children. The entertainment rating systems are designed to help adults make appropriate decisions in this regard.


Takoma Park, Md.: My 5-year-old daughter was sexually harassed by another 5-year-old at the beginning of the school year. He hugged her and kissed her without her wanting him to. I was extremely angry when the principal only suspended him for 1 week. I asked that he be expelled. I also asked the police to press charges. That didn't happen, so a civil suit is in the works. If anything, don't you think schools aren't taking harassment seriously enough?

Mary Kay Sommers: National Assn. of Elementary Principals has taken a strong stand on sexual harraassment. We recognize that such misconduct undermines the integrity of the school and creates an intimidating, hostile, offensive environment. We strongly encourage principals to follow adopted policies and provide leadership and training to ensure that such behaviors are never tolerated. At the same time, we also recognize that young children are in the developmental age and schools are in a critical place where they learn appropriate behavior.


Annandale, Va.: Frankly, I am not surprised and, as a taxpayer, I fully understand what the school did. In this post-Colombine post-Va. Tech world, where schools (and taxpayers) can be found liable for acts committed by students, what seem to be drastic measures have be taken to protect the schools (and the taxpayers) from lawsuits. Further, zero-tolerance provides a layer of defense against discrimination suits, if all students are treated in such a way as this kid.

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: I agree that it is not a surprise that schools have responded to some of the major tragedies with zero tolerance policies. I think it is also important to look at those policies and see if they are accomplishing what is intended. Research has shown that they are complex, costly and generally ineffective. They may help shield a school from some initial liability, but they also increase the liklihood that students will drop out of school and increase student failure. Keeping kids in school, teaching them what they need to know about academics and life, is the primary mission of school and ultimately needs to be the focus for educators. If we know that using positive disciplinary techniques that consider the developmental awareness of youngsters and focus on replacing undesirable behavior and misconduct with desirable behaviors is more effective, then schools need to shift their focus towards that practice.


Alexandria, Va.: The very large, national company I work for has a robust anti-harassment policy. Every year we go through training that practically includes the words to use when asking someone to stop harassing you so they will know you are serious. Does the school system have any training for the students on the system's anti-harassment policy? It seems to me that expecting early elementary schoolers to understand and refrain from sexual harassment, when many of their parents have probably not even told them about the birds and the bees yet, is a little far fetched.

Mary Kay Sommers: Yes, all staff is trained annually from those principals I know on what these policies mean and what the behaviors look like. At the same time, our code of conduct policies are explained to students in a developmentally appropriate way. Children in kindergarten should not have any experiences or context to understand the words as written in these policies. Educators at the school level must communicate expecations in language they understand. Hence, "good touch" and "bad touch" are often terms that work well for young children. The bottom line is that all children must learn very clearly what they can and cannot do. Parents need to be a part of these discussions as we partner in this confusing adventure in learning.


Charlottesville, Va.: Thanks so much for weighing in on this school issue.

Frankly, this "heightened awareness" or "zero tolerance" applies the same definition to 4-year-olds/7-year-olds/13-year-olds as it does to 30-year-olds. I've seen this standard of conduct applied to young children in public AND private schools.

Aside from the impact upon school records, schools are making serious civil and criminal legal implications when a school employee (and not the victim or perpetrator) start bandying the "sexual harassment" phrase.

What do you believe parents can do to counter this ridiculous discipline policy and educate the "educators" on the meaning and context of harassment vs. sexual harassment?

Mary Kay Sommers: The policies that principals must adhere to are clearly written, whether we agree or not. WE MUST respond as delineated by the policy or we will be legally liable for not responding as required. Often, the choices are not ours to make.

To make changes, parents should speak to those making these policies, often at the state level. As you can see, there are two sides to this issue, causing policy makers difficulty in making these tough decisions.

Above all, we want kids to feel safe and respected at school!

Good luck!


Centreville, Va.: When children are criminalized as a result of incidents like this, what is the potential, if any, for resulting psychological harm to the child?

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: It is quite possible that there could be long term psychological effects for everyone involved in this situation. However, it is hard to know though because we don't know what the children understood the misconduct to be or mean. What is most important to remember in this case is that for both kids, the adults need to clearly explain the situation in developmentally appropriate terms, explain why hitting is not OK, discuss ways to handle situations when people make us uncomfortable, and learn that how we behave in life matters.


Bethesda, Md.: You suggested that children must understand the concepts of "sexual behavior." At what age would a child reasonably distinguish between being silly and being sexual?

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: This depends highly on what the child has been taught both at home and school. We need to help kids understand the times to be silly and the times to be serious. We need to help them understand the difference between behavior that is fun and behavior that is hurtful. Simultaneously, parents and educators need to have ongoing developmentally appropriate conversations with their children about what it means to be a girl/boy, male/female. These conversations grow in their complexity and detail as children grow in their maturation and understanding. The ability for kids to put these things together is complex and requires a degree of insight on the part of the individual. This is why it is so important to not expose kids to adult content before they are able to cognitively and emotionally process it.


Washington, D.C.: Why is this even as issue? Let kids be kids...the boy had no idea what he was doing could be considered "sexual harassment." Adults are still unsure what it means when applied to the workplace, for goodness sakes.

Mary Kay Sommers: You ask questions that relate to a societal shift in how we define acceptable behavior. The shift has occurred and the laws are now in place to enforce it. We must comply.

The schools, as often happens, are one of the places that becomes responsible for so many of ills and challenges in society. As a result, we have added so many new programs and initiatives to our schools, which can sidetrack educators from the primary business of educating every child to the highest level. We clearly want to create safe and respectful environments for every child every day.


Mary Kay Sommers: Thanks for your interesting questions.

I have to return to our NAESP annual convention where children are our primary focus!

Mary Kay


Leesburg, Va.: I think things have gotten way out of hand. First with the increase in 'reality' television and there being so few clean television shows, kids are being exposed to adult topics at even younger ages. They are exposed to way too much at too young an age. Then these kids get in trouble for doing or saying what they've seen or heard?

Isn't this confusion because of irresponsible parents? I have a 7 year old son and I monitor what he listens to and what he watches, but he's still hearing things from children who don't have that much censorship at home...

Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: It is true that many parents do not seem to have a good understanding of the psychological harm that can be caused when a child is exposed to developmentally inappropriate content. It is important for all parents to do what they can to learn about a child's development and proven methods for effective parenting. Learning to be a good parent is critical but not something that most parents actively think about. When I encounter parents who are struggling to teach their children or respond to their children's behavior, I try and offer suggestions of books, materials, classes, or other resources that can help them improve. Effective parenting is one of the most difficult skills, and sadly, one of the areas where very few people take concrete steps to learn what they need to learn.


Stacy Kalamaros Skalski: Thank you for your questions and comments.


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