Experts question school's decision to suspend 6-year-old for kiss

A Colorado school followed its zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy in suspending a 6-year-old boy for kissing a girl on the hand. Such policies can be problematic, experts say.

This YouTube screenshot shows a local news broadcast interview with Hunter Yelton, the 6-year-old in Canon City, Colo., who has been suspended for kissing a girl on the hand.

As a result of kissing a fellow student on the hand during class, 6-year-old Hunter Yelton now has a permanent record.

His Colorado school district has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, which school officials maintain the boy violated with his peck. The boy was suspended from first grade at Lincoln School of Science and Technology in Canon city, Colo. His mother is protesting the school’s actions as extreme and not age-appropriate.

The case is gaining national attention through social media, with many suggesting the response is a zero-tolerance policy taken too far. School officials, who are not responding to further media requests, have told local media that the boy’s buss fits district standards for sexual harassment.  

While some education experts say this may technically be true, the assertion lacks proper perspective, especially with a child this young.

“Zero tolerance policies in schools have not been shown to work,” says Nadine Block, a child psychologist and author of “Breaking the Paddle: Ending School Corporal Punishment.”

“This is just another example of going overboard on rules in schools that need to be more flexible,” says Ms. Block, who spent two decades working as an educator in schools. Rather than a rush to punishment, she adds, “schools should be looking for ways to teach appropriate behavior instead.”

Zero-tolerance policies in schools have been implemented in order to try to decrease major student violations, says Kelly Welch, an associate professor of sociology and criminology at Villanova University in Philadelphia. But research shows that “these policies are often used in response to many less-serious acts of student misconduct and have only served to increase control mechanisms that have dire outcomes for students,” she notes in an e-mail.

The result of zero-tolerance policies in schools is often harsh discipline that excludes students from important learning opportunities without offering any increase in student safety or security, says Professor Welch.  In this particular case, it seems reasonable that the parents of the student who was kissed would want to ensure the school was taking reasonable steps to deter this kind of action from occurring, she says, adding, “but directing efforts at this particular six-year-old transgressor through a zero tolerance policy seems like an ineffective approach for handling this situation.”  

This is the second suspension for Hunter, who says that, on this occasion, he leaned over and kissed the hand of a fellow student, a girl his mother told local media is his “girlfriend.” The previous incident involved a kiss on the cheek with the same girl.

His mother also noted that her son had discipline problems at school and has been disciplined for roughhousing. Hunter told a local TV station that “6-year-olds have lots of energy,” but he also said, “I did something bad,” and he accepted the school’s action as “fair.”

School administrators have many priorities to balance, says Feather Berkower, founder of the website, Parenting Safe Children. “It’s very good that they are watching and paying attention to these things,” she says.

Nonetheless, “it cannot be a good thing for a 6-year-old child to be told he has to leave school just for kissing a girl,” says Ms. Berkower. Rather, she adds, “the school should look for a teachable moment in this, helping the kids to understand what age-appropriate sexual behavior is.”

Berkower acknowledges that she only knows what she has seen in the news about Hunter. But she points out that all reports indicate that there was no force or coercion involved in the contact.

“If he had said something like, 'I won’t be your friend if you don’t let me kiss you,' then that is different and more serious,” she says.

From all accounts, she notes, “this is developmentally predictable and age-appropriate sexual behavior for a six year old.” Instead of punishment, she adds, the school should look for ways to teach children about boundaries when it comes to expressing appropriate affection.

The public may need to respect boundaries as well, points out Paul Hewitt, professor of educational leadership at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.  He was a California school administrator for 17 years, during the era when the first zero-tolerance policies were implemented. He suggests that school officials work very hard to be fair to individual students, even with strict policies. 

“Before the general public jumps to conclusions about the unfairness, and even silliness, of this situation, it might be good to step back and recognize that we don’t know what other behaviors this student has exhibited and because he is a minor we don’t have a right to know,” he says via e-mail. “To invoke Paul Harvey, it is likely that we don’t know 'the rest of the story.' ”

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