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.