Application of Sexual Harassment Laws Run Amok: Whatever Happened to Common Sense?
Perhaps you have heard that a six-year old Aurora, Colorado elementary school student has been suspended for three days after quoting this line from an LMFAO song: "I’m sexy and I know it."
"I only just said the song," D’Avonte Meadows told Scripps Denver station 7NEWS. "I’m sexy and I know it."
Forms from the school indicate the first-grader was suspended for sexual harassment, which the school district's discipline code says has "negative affects of the learning or work of others."
D’Avonte said he and the girl were standing in the lunch line when he used the song lyric.
"I could understand if he was fondling her, looking up her skirt, trying to look in her shirt. That, to me, is sexual harassment," said Stephanie Meadows, D’Avonte’s mother. "I’m just, I’m floored. They’re going to look at him like he’s a pervert. And it’s like, that’s not fair to him."
The response of the school district illustrates the inability of some people in authority to use common sense. The incident made led me to recall the pat-down of a 4-year old child at the Wichita, Kansas airport on April 26. In that case the grandmother of the 4-year-old girl became hysterical during a security screening at the airport after the child was forced to undergo a pat-down. The child's grandmother said that her grand-daughter initially passed through security without incident. The girl then ran over to briefly hug her grandma, who was awaiting a pat-down after tripping the alarm, and that's when TSA agents insisted the girl undergo a physical pat-down. Really? Where was the common-sense approach to the incident? Did the TSA believe the girl had somehow gotten a weapon between the time of the original pat-down and when she went to hug her grandma?
Returning to the Colorado incident, the bewildering response to criticism of the school district’s action says it all: "Aurora Public Schools is committed to providing equitable learning for all students. We have policies and protocol in place to prevent any disruption to the learning environment. Due to privacy laws, we are unable to discuss appropriate disciplinary consequences about a specific student," wrote Paula Hans, media relations specialist for Aurora Public Schools.
To be fair I should point out that the boy had discipline troubles before when he quoted the same line from the same song to the same girl, this time "shaking his booty" near the girl’s face. He met with the school’s assistant principal after that incident and his mother told her son not to shake anything in the girl's face again. "I’m going to definitely have to sit with him and see if he understands exactly what the song means,” she said.
One reaction to the incident is that Colorado State Sen. Linda Newell sponsored a law (Senate Bill 46) that would require schools districts to include components within their discipline code such as peer mediation, as an alternative prior to suspension or expulsion. I’m not sure about the peer mediation. Is the goal to get 6-year olds to judge the behavior of other 6-year olds? If so, I don’t think the kids are old or mature enough to handle those responsibilities.
The ethical question is who is to blame for the incident and school district reaction? For me it is the boy’s mother and I say that based on the following comment: “Her son doesn't know the meaning of sexual harassment and it's the second time he has gotten in trouble for quoting.”
Talking about the song’s lyrics is not the answer especially if it is only designed to explain how lyrics of a song should not be taken literally and turned into action. That is a good lesson to be learned but it doesn’t go far enough. It seems to me good parenting dictates a sit-down after the first incident to explain the importance of maintaining one’s distance from another party, to not make them feel uncomfortable, and the importance of not making comments that some may take to be out of line if not “sexually-motivated.”
As for the school district, it has the responsibility to deal with the matter in a way that promotes respectful behavior. The labeling of a 6-year old as a sexual harasser is not the answer. Six-year olds are not morally mature enough to understand the consequences of their actions. That doesn’t mean the boy should be excused for what he did. But, isn’t there a school counselor who could handle the matter internally? Why not treat the situation as a teachable moment for the 6-year old and others in the school?
Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 8, 2012