Harassment's Double Risk

JUST days before a national study was released this month reporting rampant sexual harassment in schools, a popular math teacher in Fairfax County, Va., committed suicide. He had been accused of making an inappropriate comment to a female student and feared that school officials would find him guilty of sexually harassing her.

Although no connection exists between the suicide and the study by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation, the coincidence of the two events serves as a warning. Heightened awareness of sexual harassment at work and in school marks an important step in taking the issue seriously and in changing attitudes and behavior. But if that awareness gets blown out of proportion, a very real danger exists that charges may produce damaging or even devastating consequences.

According to the study, 81 percent of public-school students in grades 8 through 11 claim to have been the object of some form of sexual harassment, ranging from physical contact to sexual comments. Even if those figures are correct - critics of the survey point out that its claims are far higher than findings of other studies - it serves no useful purpose to students or teachers to create a climate of siege and suspicion in which every look or gesture, every slightly uncomfortable situation is taken as a personal affront and becomes grounds for a suspension, a firing, or a lawsuit. To imagine a potential harasser lurking behind every locker or sitting at every desk weakens rather than strengthens schools and relationships.

The suicide of the teacher in Virginia resembles another suicide exactly a year ago in Wellesley, Mass. Last June a well-respected police officer was accused of spanking, then improperly kissing a 10-year-old boy. The officer left notes stating that the child-abuse charges, which he insisted were baseless, had ruined his reputation.

No outsider can fairly judge the validity of the claims that led to the tragic deaths of the teacher and the police officer. However, in cases of suspected child abuse or sexual harassment, no one should encourage a witch-hunt mentality, playing "Gotcha!" with every real or imagined indignity. The more serious and consequential the charge, the more conscientious should be the investigation and evaluation in order not to create two victims instead of one.

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