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Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2000/ 13 Teves 5761

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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Consumer Reports

Middle-school fanny slap or sexual assault? You decide --
THE MIDDLE-SCHOOL fanny slap heard 'round the world has angered all the wrong people and increased confusion over everything from sexual harassment to zero tolerance in America's schools.

As you may have heard by now, a 14-year-old boy last month slapped the fanny of a 13-year-old girl at Espanola Middle School in Espanola, New Mexico. A school official witnessed the incident and summoned police, calling it a "criminal sexual assault."

So began a saga that, like so many tales, has taken on an Internet life of its own. I've been e-mailed at least a dozen copies of the original story, accompanied by commentaries of outrage and gender spin from the usual suspects.

Men's groups are angry that an innocent lad playing cheeky games is being herded into the juvenile-justice system. Women are angry that, once again, boys-will-be-boys at the expense of a female's dignity and personal space. Zero-tolerance critics, whose company I generally enjoy, are angry that this seems to be yet another over-the-top reaction to ordinary child's play in the politically correct asylum.

Those who are not angry include the 13-year-old girl who was slapped and her mother, who didn't want to press charges. But who cares about them?

We know what we know, and when a male's hand inappropriately makes contact with a female body, we've got a national sexual-harassment issue of chad proportions.

Or do we?

This time, everyone's a little bit wrong and a little bit right. What's wrong is the assumption that the offending boy is an innocent. He may be a victim of life's lousy deal, but his angel wings are a little tattered. This is his second brush with a girl's behind and his fifth with the New Mexico Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF).

He has been charged three times with possession of marijuana, which, though not necessarily a serious crime (certainly not in New Mexico, where Gov. Gary "I Inhaled" Johnson is an advocate for decriminalization), is nonetheless a problem for any child. He also previously has been charged with theft.

In other words, "This is not your National Junior Honor Society student," said Romaine Serna, DCYF spokesperson.

What's right about the case is appropriate concern that this boy could end up spending two years in juvenile detention for what amounts to aggressive bad manners and a history suggesting that he needs more help than punishment. Investigators with DCYF completed their investigation Wednesday and are recommending that the district attorney formally charge the child with assault.

They determined that there was no sexual content to the slap and, therefore, no justification for sexual-harassment or criminal sexual-assault charges.

The district attorney will decide what charge to bring, but Serna, who admits to feeling sorry for "any kid that's having trouble with boundaries," is hoping for a combination of probation and therapy, which seems reasonable, given the boy's history.

Still, lovers of common sense can't help wishing that the school official hadn't called police in the first place. That instead he had grabbed the kid by his collar and said, "That's it, punk. You're staying after school and cleaning bathrooms for the next three months!"

Maybe, during those after-school hours, the kid might have learned something about consequences. Maybe the supervising teacher might have learned something about a boy who lives with a guardian, who is smoking pot and stealing, who hasn't been taught to keep his hands to himself.

Instead, we seem to have reached a point when common sense can't be applied and draconian responses are the norm rather than the exception. We've learned, meanwhile, only this: The female derriere is off limits until further notice.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


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