When is a bra strap just a bra strap?

Where should schools draw the line between innocent affection and excessive public displays?

Published October 23, 2007 1:34PM (EDT)

How old do you have to be before you can be accused of sexual harassment? That's the question hinted at in this article from the Dallas Morning News about school districts that are taking a hard line against public displays of affection and anything that remotely smacks of sexual harassment.

Sure, all of us have tales of public affection gone too far -- couples making out on the subway, a guy walking down the street with his hand tucked into the back of his girlfriend's pants -- but how about an eighth-grade girl holding hands with a male friend? And is it sexual harassment when a 7-year-old at a school in Duncanville, Texas, tells a classmate to wear a darker shirt because he can see her bra strap?

According to officials at places like Fossil Hill Middle School in Fort Worth, Texas, yes. Fossil Hill has a campus ban on hugging and hand-holding (with an exception made in cases where a student is grieving and is being comforted), so when that eighth-grade girl, Ashley Highberger, held hands with her friend, a teacher chided her for it. As for the boy and the bra strap? He was accused of sexual harassment, suspended for two days and temporarily assigned to a different school. (When his parents complained that this was too severe, the accusation was dropped to "bullying.")

I don't want to insinuate that sexual harassment is not a real problem or say that schools shouldn't have some sort of policy when it comes to excessive public displays of affection in their hallways -- or, for that matter, that we shouldn't hold kids accountable for rude behavior. But these two cases suggest that we've reached a level of hysteria about sex that's so high that, ironically, we're watering down our definition of sexual harassment to the point that it doesn't seem like such a big deal. I mean, come on -- a 7-year-old pointing out a bra strap? He'd probably point out a classmate's booger, too. That doesn't mean he's necessarily trying to humiliate or harass the person -- he's just being a kid. Yes, I know it's dangerous to excuse someone's actions with the old "boys will be boys" defense. I also do empathize with school officials who are trying to protect themselves from accusations of not taking harassment seriously enough. But really. There's a line, and you can reprimand a kid for being rude without accusing him or her of sexual harassment. By making a big deal out of childish behavior that, in these cases, really is just childish, we're doing a disservice to the victims of real harassment.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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