Originally created 03/20/01

Teen-age trauma

Eleven criminal charges. Seventy student interviews. Accusations of fondling students.

When the story of alleged sexual harassment broke at Strom Thurmond High School in Edgefield, S.C., it happened in a big way.

Former ROTC teacher Paul Thomas was arrested Jan. 26 and has been charged with five counts of lewd acts involving a child under 16 and another six counts of sexual assault with intent to commit criminal sexual conduct. Edgefield officials say each of the charges involves a different student - some male, some female, all between 14 and 16 years old.

Mr. Thomas, who remained in the Edgefield County Jail on Monday without bond, waived a preliminary hearing that had been scheduled for Thursday.

No history of problems appeared in his personnel files, either at Strom Thurmond or at other schools where he taught, said Capt. Roger Low, a spokesman for the Edgefield County Sheriff's Department.

Mr. Thomas said during his bond hearing that students conspired against him to have him fired.

Police had to coax the stories out of students, Capt. Low said.

"It's very uncomfortable for children or teen-agers involved to talk about it with school officials and law enforcement and even parents," he said.

For all their bravado, teen-agers can be incredibly uncomfortable talking about sexual situations if they feel they're not in control. And for many, it's hard to know for sure when the line has been crossed.

Incidents such as the allegations at Strom Thurmond are sweeping and dramatic. But what about a teacher who compliments you on how pretty you look in that skirt? Is that harassment?

According to most school board policies, if it makes you feel intimidated or offended, or if it interferes with the academic atmosphere in your classroom, it can be.

And what about your peers? A 1999 study of sexual harassment in schools by the American Association of University Women found that two-thirds of girls who felt harassed were offended or threatened by other students, not teachers.

A lot of sexual innuendo gets thrown around in schools, according to members of the Xtreme Teen Board.

"You can't walk down the hallways between classes without hearing it," said Lindsey Wilkes-Edrington, a 14-year-old board member from North Augusta High School.

At Schofield Middle School in Aiken County, two boys were suspended from school and arrested in February after luring a 12-year-old classmate outside and fondling her.

But sexual harassment doesn't have to be that blatant.

The student code of conduct for Columbia County schools defines it as "behavior of a sexual nature that interferes with the educational environment," Associate Superintendent Charles Nagle said. That can include anything from spoken comments, such as off-color jokes or suggestive propositions, to physical contact, from rubbing against someone to actual sex.

"It says that sexual harassment is prohibited between students," he said. "So it's pretty cut-and-dried as far as the code of conduct is concerned."

Even comments that aren't directed at an individual can create what's known as a "hostile environment" if the words are sexual in nature and make someone uncomfortable. Talking about women's bodies, for example, can create a hostile environment even if you're not talking specifically about a schoolmate.

Some locker-room antics or hazing can be considered sexual harassment, even if the participants aren't physically attracted to each other and even if they're the same sex. Repeatedly making fun of someone's physical development - or lack thereof - can be sexual harassment.

National studies have shown that harassment happens in schools at a higher rate than in society generally. According to the South Carolina Department of Education, 14 cases of sexual harassment were reported in schools in 2000, as well as two cases of "forcible fondling" and a case of stalking. Another case of sexual harassment by a teacher was reported. None of the incidents happened in the Aiken or Edgefield school districts. The state board's annual crime report is available at http://www.state.sc.us/sde/crime00. Sexual harassment is classified as "other."

The Georgia Department of Education only began keeping statistics six months ago and was unable to provide numbers.

Sexual harassment, like other sexual crimes, is believed to be underreported. The AAUW study found that about 70 percent of students had been in sexual-harassment situations. They were most likely to be harassed in hallways and classrooms.

And while some people will say it's just teens being teens, that's the kind of attitude that allows the problem to continue, others say.

"It's a signal that the individual doing the harassing has a lack of respect for others," said Dr. Paulette Harris, a professor at Augusta State University and a member of the local AAUW chapter. "And if the behavior makes someone feel uncomfortable, afraid or insulted, it is harassing. It affects how we feel about ourselves, and it can affect performance in school. It creates ingrained sexual attitudes that people still harbor, even later in life."

Stopping it is a matter of educating yourself and being willing to speak out, officials said. Schools that receive federal money are required to investigate if you make a sexual-harassment complaint.

Know what sexual harassment is. If someone's behavior, speech or writing makes you uncomfortable, if the person has unwelcome physical contact with you, it could be harassment.

Be aware to whom you're talking. Unless you are very close to everyone who can hear what you're saying, you don't know whether your speech might offend someone.

Harassment doesn't have to be physical. It can be couched as a compliment or as a mean, teasing remark about someone's body or looks.

Keep a journal noting dates and times of incidents, any times you tell friends about the problem, any reports you make to authorities about it. This will provide a written record if you decide to file charges.

Don't suffer in silence. If someone, a teacher or another student, says something that you find offensive or that makes you uncomfortable, let that person know that you would prefer that he not act that way around you. Be firm. You have a right to be treated with respect.

Request that any complaints you make to administrators be kept as confidential as possible. Many school systems require that sexual-harassment complaints be handled confidentially.

Tell someone what's going on.

"It's extra-important if they can't go to a school official or a parent that they contact someone, a minister or even a peer," Capt. Low said. "These acts are wrong. Students are victims, and the only way they can be investigated if is someone talks about it."

Sexual harassment policies

Columbia County
Prohibited by school board policy and part of the student code of conduct.

May be verbal, physical or visual harassment, including suggestive pictures or sexually derogatory graffiti. Also may be "quid pro quo" situations, in which academic success is offered in return for sexual conduct.

Punishment, from a reprimand to expulsion or dismissal, is at the discretion of supervisors or principals.

Richmond County
Prohibited by school board policy and part of the student code of conduct.

Defined as unwanted sexual advances, "quid pro quo" situations or offensive speech or pictures.

Punishment, from a reprimand to expulsion or dismissal, is at the discretion of supervisors or principals.

Aiken County
Prohibited by school board policy and specifically mentioned in both student code of conduct and administrative rules.

Very broad definition that includes verbal, expressive or physical conduct, "quid pro quo" situations, repeated verbal abuse, innuendo, graphic jokes, leering, whistling, unwelcome touching and obscene gestures.

Punishment, from a reprimand to expulsion or dismissal, is at the discretion of supervisors or principals.

Reach Alisa DeMao at (706) 823-3223 or ademao@augustachronicle.com.


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