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January 28, 2012

Crime and punishment at school: where is the line?

By Jessica Kelmon, Associate Editor

Can a six-year-old be suspended for sexual assault? In Hercules, CA, the answer is yes. The question, however, is whether it’s sane.

Schools need to be safe – there’s no question about that. To see cases of kids bullying other kids, you only have to open your eyes (or read here, or watch here). But in searching for a way to deal with bullying, some educators are going too far. Zero-tolerance policies, for instance, can be used to punish the victim who finally fights back, or cause principals to seriously overreact. I’m no fan of ‘kids will be kids’ as an answer to bullying behavior – but it seems the pendulum has swung from one extreme to another.

Case in point: the six-year-old who was suspended for “sexual assault” (that phrase was written in his record by the principal). An article by Scott James tells the story well, but essentially it goes like this: two boys were playing tag at recess, and one boy’s hand touched or grazed the other’s upper thigh (or maybe the groin – it’s unclear). That boy was suspended. The official write-up: “Committed or attempted to commit a sexual assault or sexual battery.”

The suspended child’s mom was confused, so she turned to her local online parenting group, which is known for its active community and abundance of advice. Her child, she says, was playing tag. “He doesn’t know what he did wrong,” she says. She worried that this language in her son’s permanent record would follow him for life. After getting supportive responses about the principal being out of line and hearing similar stories of suspensions for hugging, she hired a lawyer. Now, her child’s record has been expunged and he’s been transferred to a new school.

A couple of interesting facts that play into this: 1) In California, kids need to be in at least fourth grade for the “intent” for such an act. 2) As one of James’ sources, a child psychologist, noted, it’s quite normal and common for kids to touch each other on the genitals out of curiosity. He stressed that it’s a cause for concern if the behavior continues after he’s told it’s inappropriate. But it doesn’t sound like anyone (principal or parent) had this conversation with the boy. (His own mom says he doesn’t know why he’s been punished.)

In the worst case scenario, this child did inappropriately and purposefully touch the other child in a bullying or victimizing capacity. But even in this case, the "perpetrator" is six.  SIX!   More likely, though, this child was inordinately punished by an overreacting principal. Either way: did anyone learn anything here? After all, this did happen at school.


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Just saw the movie "Oh God, Book II" Where a child was suspended for inciting kids to "Think God" and was about to be sent to a psychiatric hospital, when "God" (George Burns) appeared, performed a few stunts, and got the kid back in school.
The scene in the Principal's office was uncomfortably familiar. The child was obviously not entirely wrong. The principal was just "following the laws" and procedures. The parents were shocked and amazed at what should have been known.

The issue is what is the role of U.S. public schools in discipline.

It's an evolving role; I recall physical discipline being much more tolerated, even encouraged in the 60's when I first started teaching. Now if you even consider it out loud, either as a teacher or parent, you are labeled insane and obsessed with power issues. Were we insane back then?

It's my opinion that over my 40 years of teaching, the parents have become less and less concerned about being consistent with discipline regarding their children. As laws and restrictions have become stronger and more consistent regarding school discipline, this made the parents almost overly reliant on the school.

As I approach retirement I urge, very strongly, that parents step up their involvement in their child's discipline. I also urge a preemptive discipline; so the schools don't have to take the role of "in loco parentis" (legally in the parent's role while the child is in his/her presence; google it; it has an interesting history). As the world continues to grow, it seems the family unit and family bonds are becoming less strong. We need to turn that around.

I urge that parents explore this issue, and do their very best to stay in touch with teachers, be role models for their children, and, when necessary, employ firm, fair, consistent, mature, emotionally detached discipline to correct their children.

My concern in this issue is that a 6 year old dis not understand that touching another child's genital was wrong.
I make my children understand from age 3 or as soon as they get to spend time outside the home with other people that their private parts and other people's private parts are their 'private places' and no one should touch it without express permission and consent. Not even mummy. I ask and receive their permission before bathing their private parts.
If this happened to one of my children and she complained about it and said - No Don't Touch Me - then I would ensure that the school and all the kids in that school understand the meaning of 'No means NO'.

If on the other hand, my child is the one that did the touching, I would have a serious conversation with him, and even seek help because if he did that and did not show remorse for what he did; then something is seriously wrong and I would want to correct it now rather than later.

Express permission and consent? Do you have then sign a waiver? Sheez - no wonder the schools and their value systems are so confused and screwed up - "mummies" and daddies teaching thier children to be afraid of thier own shadows and constantly on the lookout for someone to blame and sue. I was in grade school in the 70s where it was perfectly normal for a teacher to spank you with a paddle in front of your classmates - not exactly fun, but I'd take that over growing up under christy's roof any day. God forbid I Play tackle football and make contact inadvertently near the "privates" of another player - or worse, congratulate a teammate with an until now harmless smack on the rear. Off to the funny farm If I'm unfortunate enough to be one of christy's spawn...

I CANNOT believe this extreme! In the other direction, my son has been *sexually bullied*....a kid who is a known disciplinary problem is now showing his privates to other boys in the restroom, shaking them/wiggling them around and telling other kids to play his 'game'--in which they all touch and/or hit other kids in their privates. A 5 day suspension and a curt "We'll look more into it" was all we got. Give me a break.

If this will be the mere resolution for bullying, then it must be legalized. There are lots of kids and teenagers who experienced getting bullied. They have experienced severe stress and depression leading to suicidal thoughts. However, education begins at home. This only means that parents must give the right advice and parental guidance to their children. They need to emphasize the importance of good relationship with other children. In this case, bullying and other sorts of assaults will be prevented in an early age.


I have seen a number of articles stating that "in California, kids need to be in at least fourth grade for the 'intent' for such an act." I have looked and cannot find evidence of such a statute. Can you please refer me to where you obtained this information? I am referring to your article at the following link. (http://blogs.greatschools.org/greatschoolsblog/2012/01/crime-and-punishment-at-school-where-is-the-line.html#comments)

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