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Pinch created a stir, but problems are more than skin deep

January 14, 2007|by TIM ROWLAND

Technically, Lincolnshire Elementary School Principal Darlene Teach was correct in writing up a kindergarten student for sexual harassment following an episode of unwelcome pinching.

Technically, the public was correct in its predictable outburst of indignation over the thought that a 5-year-old boy would be capable of sexually harassing.

In between these two poles, however, exists an unpleasant mountain of gray area that isn't being talked about and that the majority of the public probably isn't even aware of.

For starters, in its never-ending quest to quantify the uncountable, the Maryland State Board of Education requires that bad behavior be "coded," or assigned a number that can be plugged into a computer and tabulated.

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And the state also helpfully defines the offenses, and yes, this incident fit the sexual harassment template - although it also could have, maybe should have, been coded as something more innocuous, along the lines of the old police standby, "creating a nuisance."

But I'm not so sure that both Teach, by coding this as sexual harassment, and the boy's father, by taking his concerns to the press, have not done the community a tremendous favor.

At this point, let's dismiss this one particular "sexual harassment" incident from the conversation, and leave the boy, his father and the principal in peace.

Obviously, the commentary below does not in any way intend to demean the concern for the well-being of his son that the father displayed here. We are talking about a much more global issue than the one described above.

Indeed, what does fall in the public domain is the general lowering of the age of sexual awareness in schools, the role that parenting (or lack of parenting) has on that phenomenon and the degree that it lends itself to the county's well-documented teen pregnancy problem.

If you're in your 40s, think about the age at which sex came across your radar screen and then subtract a minimum of five very important years. Because that is what's happening now. Fourth graders know things that, 20 years ago, ninth graders were just starting to figure out.

And kids younger than that may not understand context, but they know what they see on television and they know how to mimic.

Language that used to be unheard of before high school now makes its rounds in elementary environments. A third grade boy is perfectly capable of asking for sexual favors from a third grade girl, even if he does not exactly understand the meaning behind the words. These events may be relatively rare, but they do happen.

Viewed in this context, and considering what they have to deal with, it is quite understandable that teachers and administrators react in ways that may seem extreme to those who don't know what the education system is up against.

Consider this: If you are the parent of a third-grade girl, and a third-grade boy asks her to perform a specific sex act, do you want the teacher to "overreact?" You're darn right you do.

When families splinter, kids lose face time with those they love and depend on for attention. A father is gone, a mother is exhausted from working double to make ends meet. Television steps in. So too, perhaps, do non-role-model teens in the apartment next door. The slow, nurturing process of growing up is replaced by the hard fast-track of awareness.

Compounding the tragedy is that these kids are not slow or stupid. In fact, they may be just the opposite: Fast learners. I very seriously doubt that there is a teacher in the school system whose heart hasn't broken over a kid with talent who just couldn't be saved because of an unthinkable home life.

Increasingly, we're looking at schools to solve family problems. When children fail, we inevitably ask, what's the matter with our schools? What's the matter with schools, is that they can't be with the children 24 hours a day. Schools that used to be able to just sit back and teach are asked to do everything from being parents, to police, to foreign-language interpreters, to miniature bureaus of homeland security.

This isn't an argument to give public education a free pass. This is an argument to understand that education is a far more complex organism than it was 20 years ago. For people my age and above who were raised in decent families, it's almost impossible to fathom the challenges faced by today's teachers.

We spend so much time, energy and money fretting about how schools can be improved. But education, when allowed, will take care of itself. We need to be figuring out how families can be improved. Children who arrive at school happy, healthy, well-nourished and well-cared for, can be educated and they will succeed. But the opposite is true as well.

What this means is that we are asking the wrong questions and directing our indignity toward easy but irrelevant targets, such as arcane conduct-coding formulae.

The above-referenced pinch heard 'round the world can be a useful if we will take the time to explore its implications from a level that goes beyond taking potshots at bureaucratic silliness.

It may have been a little girl who was pinched, but it's the rest of us who need it.

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