ADOLESCENCE is a time when boys and girls cautiously get to know each other - flirting, dating, and exploring relationships. But editors at Seventeen magazine recently discovered a darker side of teenage behavior when they asked readers about sexual harassment at school. More than 4,200 girls between the ages of 9 and 19 responded and told of being fondled, grabbed, and subjected to suggestive remarks. Almost two-fifths said they were sexually harassed daily, and nearly 30 percent said such incidents occ urred weekly.
The survey cannot be considered statistically valid; respondents are self-selected. Still, the report should be taken seriously, because the problem too often is not. Although more than three-fourths of the girls said they told someone about the incidents, in 45 percent of cases schools did nothing. Sexual harassment in schools is illegal.
The Seventeen findings come at a time when courts are beginning to reject "boys will be boys" as a justification for inappropriate sexual conduct. This month four high school boys in Glen Ridge, N.J., were convicted of sexually assaulting a mentally retarded classmate. And a week ago nine teenage boys in Lakewood, Calif., were charged with molesting and raping girls to score "points" in a gang-related "game." Although eight boys have been freed, four remain under investigation.
In a sexually charged society, where the prevailing message often appears to be "anything goes," learning what kinds of behavior are and are not acceptable can be difficult. Teenagers - boys and girls alike - need more help than they are getting.
As always, parents bear a primary responsibility for discussing standards and conveying values; churches also have a useful role here. At the same time, schools can follow the example of corporations by developing policies and training teachers about harassment. Dealing quickly and fairly with complaints as they arise is one solution. Equally important is working diligently to prevent future incidents from ever happening at all.