Suspended for kissing

By now readers of this blog have probably heard about the six year-old who was suspended for sexual harassment for kissing his classmate’s hand. It’s a pretty widely-reported story: CNN, Fox, USA Today

A 6-year-old boy near Colorado Springs, Colorado, was suspended from school for kissing a girl on the hand. You read that correctly.

“It was during class,” first-grader Hunter Yelton said in an interview with CNN affiliate KRDO. “We were doing reading group, and I leaned over and kissed her on the hand. That’s what happened.”

Not only did Hunter’s peck get him suspended from school, but the school accused him of sexual harassment, KRDO reported.

Hunter’s mom, Jennifer Saunders, is outraged.

“This is taking it to an extreme that doesn’t need to be met with a 6-year-old,” Saunders told KRDO. Now my son’s asking questions, ‘What is sex, mommy?’”

She said Hunter had problems at school before, getting suspended for rough-housing and for kissing the same girl on the cheek. The family has been working with him on “class disruptions” by grounding him and giving him “big restrictions,” Saunders said.

Robin Gooldy, the superintendent of Cañon City Schools, told KRDO that Hunter’s record will remain within the district and that his behavior fits the school policy description of sexual harassment, which includes unwanted touching.

Professor Glenn Reynolds, known as Instapundit, got in on the action, too, drawing primarily on James Taranto at the WSJ and casting it as part of a “War on Men” (which is something the Professor’s wife writes about, see this, for example) and, in his Instapundity-way, plugging his new book. (That’s not a criticism — I find it charming.)

As amusing as the story of Hunter Yelton is, however, it is an example of a dire and widespread problem. “Sexual harassment” rules are ostensibly sex-neutral, but in practice they are used primarily to police male behavior. Feminists like Hanna Rosin note with triumph that girls and women do better in school than their male counterparts. One reason is that normal female behavior is seldom stigmatized or punished in the name of “civil rights.”

And while college “justice” is often downright oppressive, the excesses of contemporary feminism know no age limits. As the story of Hunter Yelton demonstrates, the war on men is also a war on little boys.

Well, little boys are cute, but they grow up to become those nasty men, you know. Nits make lice, as they say.

Professor Ann Althouse also jumps into the fray in her characteristic way — trying to find something interestingly contrarian to demonstrate her perspicacity. (Again, that’s not criticism. I find her style charming as well.)

I agree that someone that young should not be labeled with an offense that contains the word “sexual.” (The school district, barraged with criticism, has relabeled his offense “misconduct.”) I would locate the issue of suspending him within the larger problem of the “zero tolerance” approach.

But I do think that the school is right to forbid kissing. The boy’s mother, naturally wants to defend her child, tells us that the children were “boyfriend and girlfriend” and that the girl “was fine with it.” That may make the misbehavior less severe, but it does not take it out of the range of what a school should forbid.

By the boy’s report, it happened “during class, yeah”: “We were doing reading group and I leaned over and kissed her on the hand.” That isn’t acceptable in-class behavior! The school should forbid that. I don’t understand saying it’s fine for boys and girls who like each other to freely express that affection with hand kissing during class. How about a little support for the school teachers who expect discipline during their lessons? You’re not allowed to whisper back and forth or pass notes either. This is basic classroom respect. Have we all forgotten?

I can see her argument, here. This is pretty clearly a case of repeated behavior. And kids gotta learn that there are rules. (We can separately ask what sort of rules might be appropriate, and what sort of environment those rules create.)

But I think that everyone is focusing too much on the “sexual harassment” angle here. Yeah, probably not the best phrase to be tossing around an elementary school kid. But he is not, as far as I can tell from the reports, being charged with any sort of criminal infraction. From the USA Today article:

District superintendent Robin Gooldy told The Associated Press on Tuesday the boy was suspended because of a policy against unwanted touching.

“The focus needs to be on his behavior. We usually try to get the student to stop, but if it continues, we need to take action and it sometimes rises to the level of suspension,” he said.

He said officials have not heard from the girl’s parents, and no legal action is anticipated because it was only a violation of school policy.

The word “sexual harassment” here appears to be functioning just as a label for the policy — and it’s a label that pretty clearly means nothing at all, because it is apparently so sweepingly broad in the behavior that it covers that “unwanted touching” is included in it. You might as well call it the “Purple Ugly Mechanic Hamburger Policy”.

The more serious problem that is rearing its head in the prosecution of our little protagonist is the punishment, not the words used to describe the offense or the policy. Professor Althouse draws the right parallels, I think, and kids do not, as far as I know, typically get suspended for repeated note-passing, or for repeated whispering. Sent to the Principal’s office, maybe. Lose recess, maybe. (Though you have to have recess first before you can lose it.) Heck, in some schools a rap with a ruler wouldn’t be out of the question.

Now I want to step back from my own position for a second. Part of what’s driving this is that when the parents of these kids were growing up (I’m guessing that they are my age, maybe a little younger), suspension was the atom bomb of school discipline. It’s what you got for widespread cheating, for fighting in class, or maybe for calling your teacher a ***-****** ******* **** in front of the class and throwing your book at her.

That’s just not how suspension is used nowadays. But people my age (and probably, I’d say, over 26 or so) don’t get that. Even if we understand it intellectually, we hear “suspension” and we automatically think to ourselves, “Uh oh… this is serious.” I think we’re right to do this, and that the fault lies with those who treat suspension the way we used to treat having your name put on the board. But that doesn’t change the fact that there is a deep, visceral miscommunication that may be going on here.