Is sexual harassment to be allowed in our schools?

Linda Purrington (
Thu, 07 Jan 1999 08:04:44 PST

Excerpt re Eve Bruneau case regarding sexual harassment--Note the
teacher's participation in the hostile environment.
--forwarded by Linda Purrington, Title IX Advocates,

. . . .Sitting around the dinner table with his family three years ago,
Raul Ugarte found himself hungering only for justice. His daughter
Tianna, a sixth-grade cheerleader at Bidwell Elementary School in
Antioch, Calif., near Sacramento, had mentioned that one of her
classmates was verbally harassing her. And these were not ordinary
schoolyard taunts. Tianna said the boy had used degrading sexual
epithets and had even threatened to kill her. Aghast, Ugarte said he
would ask school officials to put a stop to it. But Tianna, then 11,
begged him not to; it would only make the situation worse, she told him.
"When Ilooked at her face, I saw total fear," says Ugarte, who owns a
shipping supply company. "It was the first time I'd ever seen that in
her eyes. And then I knew something very serious was happening to her."

In the next few weeks, Ugarte discussed the matter with David Madrigal,
the Bidwell principal, who promised to investigate. He even talked with
the boy's father, who seemed sympathetic. But the abuse continued.
Finally, Ugarte and his wife, Candy, met with school superintendent Alan
Newell--who told them that he couldn't do anything because the
allegations were unproved. He all but dared the Ugartes to sue the
school, they say. So they did. Two weeks ago, after Tianna, now 14, and
several schoolmates testified that the boy had repeatedly used the
vilest sexual slurs, a jury awarded the Ugartes, who had run up legal
fees of nearly $150,000, a staggering $500,000 in damages.

By now almost everyone has heard about the disciplining of the
6-year-old from North Carolina and the 7-year-old from New York City who
kissed classmates. It is easy to make light of such cases, and much of
America did. But what if the child is 10 or 12--and what if the kiss
isn't just a kiss, but something more ominous? If the North Carolina and
New York cases seem like examples of discipline run amok, it is only a
measure of the confusion and anxiety that is gripping school officials
around the country, thanks to demands of parents on both sides of these
issues and a spate of suits similar to the Ugartes'.

Plaintively, Antioch superintendent Newell asks, "The question is, what
is our obligation?" The answer is fairly obvious, according to Oregon
Department of Education attorney Kathryn Murdock, a former teacher who
wrote a national sexual-harassment policy guide for schools in 1993.
"Educators need to make schools a place where respectful behavior among
students is the expected norm," she says. But students and parents who
have challenged schools over student sexual harassment--like the Ugartes
and two other cases in Texas and New York--have discovered that
demanding a civil atmosphere for learning isn't so easy.

Four years ago sisters Jessica and Jaqulynn Fowler were eighth graders
who dreaded the daily 45-minute bus ride to the Sam Rayburn Middle
School in the East Texas town of Bryan. As the girls told their parents,
Patrick and Debra Rowinsky, a group of high school boys who rode the bus
repeatedly groped them and made obscene taunts and gestures. The
harassment became so demoralizing that the sisters began suffering from
depression and falling grades. "Jessica's sleep changed from a child who
would stretch out in bed to a child curled up in a fetal position," says

When the girls first reported the incidents to their parents, says their
mother, she contacted the school. But she says she received little
sympathy, much less help. "It was an almost weekly thing for me to call
up there to complain or to find out what they were doing about it, which
was ultimately nothing," she says. School officials, though, say that
wasn't the case. Jennifer Jacobs, an attorney representing the Bryan
school district, says when specific episodes were reported, the boys
responsible were punished, with one being suspended from school and two
from the bus.

Even so, the Rowinskys say, the behavior continued, and they sued the
school district in November 1993. Jessica and Jaqui had distinctly mixed
feelings about their parents' aggressive stance. On the one hand, they
desperately wanted the taunting to stop. At the same time, the
continuing dispute was causing them trouble. "They hated us,"says Debra
of her daughters, "because every time we made a complaint, somehow or
other the student body would find out about it and make things worse on
the girls on the bus and at school."

In fact the Rowinskys say they felt so threatened that they were forced
to move out of town and transfer the girls to another school. Ultimately
a team of federal investigators, requested by Debra, uncovered 254
instances in which students were involved in misconduct of a sexual
nature in the Bryan school district during the 1992-93 year. Debra says
fear of intimidation silenced some girls, though at least four other
girls did come forward to lodge similar complaints. "Quite frankly, the
kids are afraid to report it," says Debra. "I mean, we got run out of
town. Why go and bring that on your family?"

That is a dilemma shared by the Bruneau family, who live in Delaware
County in Upstate New York. In October 1993, 11-year-old Eve Bruneau
told her father, John, and her mother, Pat Schofield, that her
sixth-grade class at South Kortright Central School had become a
nightmare. She said that she and other girls were routinely abused by
boys in the class who snapped girls' bras, grabbed their breasts and
called them such names as "lesbian," "prostitute" and "whore." One boy,
she tearfully reported, had clapped erasers near her face and called her
an "ugly, dog-faced bitch."

Worst of all, she said, the teacher, William Parker Jr., did nothing to
stop them. Schofield, who worked as a substitute teacher at the school,
confronted Parker, who, she says, initially dismissed the incidents as
no big deal. Finally, says Schofield, Parker made a half-hearted effort
to address the problem. Taking Eve and a boy who had insulted her aside
one day, he held each student by the wrist and asked the boy to
apologize. The boy refused. Letting him go, Parker continued to hold
onto Eve's wrist and told her, "You know, Eve, guys are going to call
you names all your life, and you're going to have to deal with it."
(Parker and school officials have refused to comment.) The Bruneaus
eventually transferred Eve to another school and prepared to sue.

Though the stories of Tianna Ugarte, the Fowler sisters and Eve Bruneau
are similar, their different legal outcomes illustrate how murky the
waters of schoolyard harassment have become. Even the courts themselves
are divided. On Oct. 7 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the
Rowinskys' appeal of lower-court rulings. Based on a narrow
interpretation of discrimination law, they held that the mere fact that
sexual harassment had occurred didn't make the school liable for damages
because there was no evidence the school had treated their daughters'
complaints any differently than it would have treated similar complaints
from boys. Yet in a preliminary ruling in the Bruneau case two months
earlier, a federal judge in New York State declared that, in theory,
schools, like private employers, may be held responsible for sexual
harassment. Armed with that decision, the Bruneau family will get their
day in court next month, when the trial is scheduled to start in their
suit against the South Kortright Central School District.

It seems likely that the Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide
whether schools are to be held liable for student sexual harassment.
(The Ugartes won their case by invoking a California state law that
expressly forbids sexual harassment.) But in the meantime, many
educators and parents, while not excusing such abuse, decry taking
complaints against financially overburdened schools to court. One of
these is Robin Magnan, whose daughter Jamie, 11, is currently in William
Parker's sixth-grade class at South Kortright Central--the same class
Eve Bruneau was in three years ago. "Ireally don't believe you should
hit the pocketbook to get solutions," she says. "I really feel that it
should have been dealt with not by suing but by dealing with the kids as
adolescents. Adolescence is a difficult time for a boy or girl."

But the Bruneaus argue that this is precisely the point--and precisely
why they are pressing the case: so that even in the stormy years of
puberty, kids aren't allowed to lose sight of right and wrong. For them,
as with the other parents who sued, going to court was a last resort.
"It surprises me how many people will say that `boys go through this
stage,' but I know a lot of guys who are 40, and they still act like
they're 12," says Pat Schofield. "They pick up this attitude and they
take it with them.". . .


N.Y., JOSEPH HARMES in Bryan and CAROL SIMONS in Washington


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