Six-year-old Jonathan Prevette of Lexington, N.C., wasn't the only one suspended from school for kissing a female classmate on the cheek. Last week seven-year-old De'Andre Dearinge of Queens, New York, was allowed to return to school after being suspended for several days. His crime? Kissing a girl and pulling a button off her skirt. (His favorite book is "Corduroy," in which a bear goes looking for his missing button.) By doing so, he violated the school's sexual-harassment policy.
In explaining the school's action, a spokeswoman said, "Unwelcome is unwelcome at any age." Maybe so, but what about the adage, "The punishment should fit the crime"? It's a pretty good guess that Jonathan and De'Andre had never heard the term "sexual harassment" and would not be able to explain what it is.
Too many adults have the same problem. As experts on issues in the workplace explain it, sexual harassment is the inappropriate sexualization of a nonsexual relationship. It typically involves the dominance of men over women. It's more than physical touching. It's certainly more than one seven-year-old kissing another.
That isn't to say school administrators should take lightly their charge to protect students from sexual harassment, but neither should they go overboard. To its credit, the Lexington school board voted Monday to revise its sexual-harassment policy, allowing school officials to consider, among other things, the age and maturity of a student. Under the revised policy, incidents such as those involving Jonathan and De'Andre will now be handled on an individual basis.
Advocates for women rightly worry that the focus on little boys innocently kissing their classmates makes a mockery of - or at least obscures - the real sexual harassment that takes place not only in offices but also in schools. Last week, a sixth-grade girl in California was awarded $500,000 in damages for months of sexual taunting and threats by a classmate. Her case, and others like it, show schools they have to take the problem seriously - but not take it to extremes.