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SEXUAL MISCONDUCT IN SCHOOLS // Is this what we teach our kids?

Published Jul. 6, 2006

A cheerleader for Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport missed the bus for the away game. Instead of traveling with the rest of the cheerleaders, she found herself waiting to go with the basketball team.

That's when she was approached by the team star. Laying his body across her, he kissed her neck. She protested and tried to push him away.

The rest of the team, many of them her friends, laughed. He stopped, joined the laughter and walked away. A few minutes later he came back and did it again.

That's as far as it went.

But for another girl at Boca Ciega it went much further. In January, according to police reports, a girl was pulled into a boy's bathroom where she was molested by a male student while two other boys watched.

It is not the first time something like that has happened in a school.

In January, a 15-year-old boy was charged with raping a 14-year-old schoolmate on the grounds of Pasco High School in Dade City. Last year, two 14-year-old boys were charged with raping a 13-year-old girl at Franklin Middle School in Tampa. In 1995, eight students were charged with forcing a 15-year-old girl to perform oral sex in the bathroom of a Pensacola high school.

It's not just Florida. Last month in Washington, D.C., fourth-graders in a time-out room were caught "experimenting sexually." Although the principal claimed it was consensual, parents of two female students said their daughters were forced to disrobe.

So what is going on in our schools? Is it the result of spiraling morals, a lack of respect for each other, or sexism in its worse sense?

In some cases, acting out in sexual ways at school can be chalked up to the facts of life. Puberty hits and kids get curious. Boys and girls want to relate to each other, but they're not really sure how to go about it. Teasing is replaced with yanking underwear and making inappropriate remarks.

Leaving such behavior unchecked, brushing it off as "boys will be boys," can push the problem into the danger zone.

"Sexual aggression is a continuum," says Dr. Jacquelyn White, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. "It begins with a milder form of harassment, inappropriate talk to the popping of bra straps, unwanted contact, coerced physical activity and then coerced sexual activity," says White, who recently completed a study on dating violence and sexual assault.

Each time inappropriate behavior, obscene epithets, grabbing a breast or buttock, goes unseen or without reprimand, the baseline of what is acceptable is lowered, White says.

And that's exactly what some people fear is happening.

Dennis DiNoia, a teacher who left the school system four years ago to start a tutoring business in St. Petersburg, says the intensity has definitely changed.

Twenty years ago when he was in school, DiNoia notes, boys spread rumors about girls who stuffed their bras. When he began teaching, he found a far different atmosphere. At Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, where DiNoia once taught, a boy was given a three-day suspension in 1995 for bragging about his pierced penis and allegedly showing it to at least one female student.

The solution, everyone agrees, is teaching kids what is appropriate.

So what exactly are we teaching our children about relationships and respect? Not much, experts say, and that is a large part of the problem.

A constant feeling of fear

Last year in Florida schools there were 2,437 incidents of sexual harassment, 1,490 incidents of sexual offenses and 173 incidents of sexual battery reported. But officials urge caution about drawing any conclusions from those statistics: It was the first year such numbers were collected and they're not certain everyone understands what should be reported.

Teachers, however, say sexual harassment is common.

"It's something you always see," says Alyce O'Connor, a teacher at Osceola Middle School in Seminole, who has taught seventh- and eighth-graders for 30 years. "Boys say inappropriate things to girls and girls say inappropriate things to boys."

The reported incidents of sexual harassment in schools last year ranged from a male student grabbing a female's buttocks to comments about breasts to a male student spreading sexually explicit rumors about his ex-girlfriend, a student at the same school.

Students say they often feel under siege. The simple act of walking down the hallway can feel like running the gantlet.

Two female freshman described the fear they felt when encountering three large boys in an empty hallway. The boys blocked their way while commenting sexually on their bodies. "They could have dragged us into the bathroom and done anything," one girl says.

(To protect their privacy, none of the students quoted in this story are identified.)

For their part, some boys don't seem to realize how scary they can be. One 16-year-old sophomore at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg describes how he and his friends "flirt" with girls they find attractive. Raising one hand up as if cracking a bullwhip, the boys thrust their hips and shout, "YEE-HA!"

"We just want them to know we like them," the boy says.

A 15-year-old sophomore at Clearwater High School says he knows this kind of behavior is obnoxious but he says many boys "will do whatever they can to see what they can get away with."

Exasperated by her experiences, a 15-year-old freshman at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg says it feels like obscene comments and inappropriate touching happens in middle school and high school "every five minutes."

That, students say, can evoke an atmosphere where they feel it's futile to protest. Fearing backlash or that their complaints will go ignored, girls often do not report unwanted touching, inappropriate teasing, the times they are actually afraid.

Take the cheerleader at Boca Ciega. It never occurred to her to tell the coach. It was 20 minutes before the game. The boy was a star athlete. Anyway, she reasoned, it wasn't the first incident of sexual harassment she had endured, and it probably wouldn't be the last.

Getting the wrong message

What's going on in school hallways and bathrooms shouldn't come as a surprise, says Scott Bailey, a teacher at Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg. It is, he says, simply a reflection of our society.

Kids are picking up new tricks from the mass media. Prime-time television, on average, offers more than 15 instances of sexual behavior from suggestive remarks to implied intercourse every hour, according to studies by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-care research group, in Menlo Park, Calif. Sex and sexual relationships are the single most common topic on daytime talk shows.

While kids pick up witty new jokes and behavior from Jerry Springer and Montel Williams, too often adults aren't there to tell them life should not be lived like an afternoon talk show.

Without that guidance, Bailey asks, "Can we really blame them for emulating the things they see on TV or hear in their music?"

As children act out against each other in the hallways and classrooms, where are the educators to teach them differently?

Either teachers aren't around to see it, or if they are, some students say, they ignore the problem.

"Faculty doesn't really like to deal with it," says a female 18-year-old senior from St. Petersburg High School. "They might have you fill out a form, but it won't go any further than that."

Largo High School teacher Jeri Quirk doesn't think schools are doing enough to adapt to the changing social climate. "Schools are so focused on academics and test scores that we are really abandoning our youth and not dealing with the issues that are most important for them," Quirk says.

"I talk to freshman girls who are so traumatized by their middle school experience they can barely talk about it," Quirk says. "Where are the teachers when this is going on?"

A need for adult input

Ignoring inappropriate behavior, even when it can be a danger to fellow students, is not unusual in schools, some teachers and students say.

At Boca Ciega, most students learned about the assault when the Times published a story about the incident. The topic of the assault had never been discussed with students in any official or public way.

"Not a single teacher asked us how we felt," says one female 14-year-old freshman.

School officials say they do the best they can.

"We try to create the type of climate where the student will feel free to report sexual harassment," says Solomon Stephens, Pinellas County schools assistant superintendent for equal opportunity and employee relations. "We have a zero tolerance policy of sexual harassment."

Stephens says it is also part of the school's responsibility to "caution kids about stepping over and crossing the boundaries."

Some experts say that is not enough.

"This gets at the whole issue of young men not being prepared to have relationships based on equality," says Doug Huenergardt, director of program development for Family Service Centers, a private, non-profit family and community outreach organization. "There are no role models coming forward and saying, "this isn't acceptable, what you are doing will lead to misfortune.'


If the schools aren't doing enough, neither are parents, say some teachers. "If parents would say, "don't do this' and tell their children why, when they hear it from teachers it would be more of an echo instead of teachers being the parents," says Bailey of Tyrone Middle School. Bailey, who says he frequently reprimands boys for harassing girls in the hallway, says many react as if they've never been told their behavior is wrong.

When it comes to finding the right guidance to give their children, parents also often find the lines drawn between boys and girls.

"I've taught my son that he should never take advantage and always be polite around girls," says Mary Ann McAdams of Clearwater, who has a son, 14, and a daughter, 18.

Finding the words to help her daughter through school was not as easy. "She's told me the only way to resolve (harassment) is to use foul language," McAdams says. "A girl has to be really assertive if she wants to be left alone."

This advice may work for some girls. However, as experts point out, society teaches boys to be assertive and girls to accept it.

"This is about how gender is defined," says Huenergardt of Family Service Centers. "It keeps getting defined in terms of guys and how they can use power and control in their interpersonal relationships."

Unfortunately, such dynamics mean little to students in the middle of it.

"I'm scared to walk down the hall of my own school," says one freshman girl. "And I've got three more years to go."