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Beyond teasing

The harassment started a few months ago on the school bus. Millie, a 10th-grade student with red hair, was called "fire crotch" by several sixth-grade boys, who giggled and snickered among themselves.

"I was embarrassed," said Millie, who asked that her last name and town not be used so that she could avoid further harassment. "I told them not to say it, but they kept on. Then I tried to ignore them."

Her sister, who had overheard the taunts, complained to the school bus driver who said that there was nothing she could do. Millie's mother spoke to both the bus company and the school principal.

For several months nothing changed _ until the mother started using the phrase "sexual harassment" in her conversations with bus company officials. The boys were assigned to the seat behind the driver and were told that if the name-calling happened again they would not be allowed on the bus.

A generation ago, the behavior of the boys would have been written off as harmless teasing. "Most parents can think back and remember something that happened to them that they may not have thought of as sexual harassment at the time," said Eleanor Linn, the associate director of Programs for Educational Opportunity at the University of Michigan School of Education in Ann Arbor.

Today such behavior is taken much more seriously by school officials, especially after several successful lawsuits stemming from incidents ranging from name-calling to failure to erase graffiti on a bathroom wall.

"This isn't just an inner-city or even an urban problem," said Nan Stein, the director of the Sexual Harassment in Schools Project at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women in Wellesley, Mass. "I've seen complaints from rural schools and rich suburban schools."

"The harassment may prevent children from choosing certain activities or classes," Stein said. "Sexual harassment may poison the environment, reinforcing the idea that school isn't a safe or a just place."

But complaining is often difficult for children _ both boys and girls _ even though both school policy and federal law are usually on their side. They worry about being labeled tattletales, or told that they have no sense of humor. To protest to the harassers is to risk rejection at a time when social acceptance by peers is often paramount. To complain to a school official is to risk embarrassment over issues that are already sensitive.

Sexual harassment of children by children is also a difficult topic for parents to talk about. The jump from harmless teasing to harassment is sometimes not obvious. The difference in status or power between the abuser and the victim _ a hallmark of sexual harassment in the workplace _ is often absent. It's easy to brush off the incidents as nothing more than youthful exuberance.

"Most parents who will respond strongly to an adult who's sexually harassing their child are less clear as to what to do if it's a peer who's doing the harassing," Linn said.

One reason children harass their peers is the harasser's own insecurities about sexuality. "When it occurs in a group, it has the function of showing off to other kids that you know something about sex even though, in reality, it shows that you know very little about it," said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia who specializes in adolescent development.

When the boy so crudely taunted Millie, he was trying to give his friends the impression that he knew something about sexuality that they might not know, Steinberg said.

Another reason for the harassment is that some of the models for adult and adolescent relationships _ on television, in movies or in popular music _ are abusive or exploitative. To an adolescent, the wide exposure of such relationships in the mass media creates an aura of normality and appropriateness, especially if those adolescents don't see them being questioned and challenged by the adults around them.

"Many of the high school boys we've interviewed said that no one ever told them they couldn't act like this," Stein said. "Their behavior had been accepted throughout grade school and middle school."