SITTING AROUND THE DINNER TABLE WITH HIS FAMILY three years ago, Raul Ugarte found himself hungering only for justice. His daughter. Tianna, a sixth-grade cheerleader at Bidwell Elementary School in Antioch, Calif., near Sacramento, had mentioned that one of her classmates was verbally harassing her. And these were not ordinary schoolyard taunts. Tianna said the boy had used degrading sexual epithets and had even threatened to kill her. Aghast, Ugarte said he would ask school officials to put a stop to it. But Tianna, then 11, begged him not to; it would only make the situation worse, she told him. “When I looked at her face, I saw total fear,” says Ugarte, who owns a shipping supply company. “It was the first time I’d ever seen that in her eyes. And then I knew something very serious was happening to her.”
In the next few weeks, Ugarte discussed the matter with David Madrigal, the Bidwell principal, who promised to investigate. He even talked with the boy’s father, who seemed sympathetic. But the abuse continued. Finally, Ugarte and his wife, Candy, met with school superintendent Alan Newell—who told them that he couldn’t do anything because the allegations were unproved. He all but dared the Ugartes to sue the school, they say. So they did. Two weeks ago, after Tianna, now 14, and several schoolmates testified that the boy had repeatedly used the vilest sexual slurs, a jury awarded the Ugartes, who had run up legal fees of nearly $150,000, a staggering $500,00 in damages.
By now almost everyone has heard about the disciplining of the 6-year-old from North Carolina and the 7-year-old from New York City who kissed classmates. It is easy to make light of such cases, and much of America did. But what if the child is 10 or 12—and what if the kiss isn’t just a kiss, but something more ominous? If the North Carolina and New York cases seem like examples of discipline run amok, it is only a measure of the confusion and anxiety that is gripping school officials around the country, thanks to demands of parents on both sides of these issues and a spate of suits similar to the Ugartes’.
Plaintively, Antioch superintendent Newell asks, “The question is, what is our obligation?” The answer is fairly obvious, according to Oregon Department of Education attorney Kathryn Murdock, a former teacher who wrote a national sexual-harassment policy guide for schools in 1993. “Educators need to make schools a place where respectful behavior among students is the expected norm,” she says. But students and parents who have challenged schools over student sexual harassment—like the Ugartes and two other cases in Texas and New York—have discovered that demanding a civil atmosphere for learning isn’t so easy.
Four years ago sisters Jessica and Jaqulynn Fowler were eighth graders who dreaded the daily 45-minute bus ride to the Sam Rayburn Middle School in the East Texas town of Bryan. As the girls told their parents, Patrick and Debra Rowinsky, a group of high school boys who rode the bus repeatedly groped them and made obscene taunts and gestures. The harassment became so demoralizing that the sisters began suffering from depression and falling grades. “Jessica’s sleep changed from a child who would stretch out in bed to a child curled up in a fetal position,” says Debra.
When the girls first reported the incidents to their parents, says their mother, she contacted the school. But she says she received little sympathy, much less help. “It was an almost weekly thing for me to call up there to complain or to find out what they were doing about it, which was ultimately nothing,” she says. School officials, though, say that wasn’t the case. Jennifer Jacobs, an attorney representing the Bryan school district, says when specific episodes were reported, the boys responsible were punished, with one being suspended from school and two from the bus.
Even so, the Rowinskys say, the behavior continued, and they sued the school district in November 1993. Jessica and Jaqui had distinctly mixed feelings about their parents’ aggressive stance. On the one hand, they desperately wanted the taunting to stop. At the same time, the continuing dispute was causing them trouble. “They hated us,” says Debra of her daughters, “because every time we made a complaint, somehow or other the student body would find out about it and make things worse on the girls on the bus and at school.”
In fact the Rowinskys say they felt so threatened that they were forced to move out of town and transfer the girls to another school. Ultimately a team of federal investigators, requested by Debra, uncovered 254 instances in which students were involved in misconduct of a sexual nature in the Bryan school district during the 1992-93 year. Debra says fear of intimidation silenced some girls, though at least four other girls did come forward to lodge similar complaints. “Quite frankly, the kids are afraid to report it,” says Debra. “I mean, we got run out of town. Why go and bring that on your family?”
That is a dilemma shared by the Bruneau family, who live in Delaware County in Upstate New York. In October 1993, 11-year-old Eve Bruneau told her father, John, and her mother, Pat Schofield, that her sixth-grade class at South Kortright Central School had become a nightmare. She said that she and other girls were routinely abused by boys in the class who snapped girls’ bras, grabbed their breasts and called them such names as “lesbian,” “prostitute” and “whore.” One boy, she tearfully reported, had clapped erasers near her face and called her an “ugly, dog-faced bitch.”
Worst of all, she said, the teacher, William Parker Jr., did nothing to stop them. Schofield, who worked as a substitute teacher at the school, confronted Parker, who, she says, initially dismissed the incidents as no big deal. Finally, says Schofield, Parker made a half-hearted effort to address the problem. Taking Eve and a boy who had insulted her aside one day, he held each student by the wrist and asked the boy to apologize. The boy refused. Letting him go, Parker continued to hold onto Eve’s wrist and told her, “You know, Eve, guys are going to call you names all your life, and you’re going to have to deal with it.” (Parker and school officials have refused to comment.) The Bruneaus eventually transferred Eve to another school and prepared to sue.
Though the stories of Tianna Ugarte, the Fowler sisters and Eve Bruneau are similar, their different legal outcomes illustrate how murky the waters of schoolyard harassment have become. Even the courts themselves are divided. On Oct. 7 the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Rowinskys’ appeal of lower-court rulings. Based on a narrow interpretation of discrimination law, they held that the mere fact that sexual harassment had occurred didn’t make the school liable for damages because there was no evidence the school had treated their daughters’ complaints any differently than it would have treated similar complaints from boys. Yet in a preliminary ruling in the Bruneau case two months earlier, a federal judge in New York State declared that, in theory, schools, like private employers, may be held responsible for sexual harassment. Armed with that decision, the Bruneau family will get their day in court next month, when the trial is scheduled to start in their suit against the South Kortright Central School District.
It seems likely that the Supreme Court will ultimately have to decide whether schools are to be held liable for student sexual harassment. (The Ugartes won their case by invoking a California state law that expressly forbids sexual harassment.) But in the meantime, many educators and parents, while not excusing such abuse, decry taking complaints against financially overburdened schools to court. One of these is Robin Magnan, whose daughter Jamie, 11, is currently in William Parker’s sixth-grade class at South Kortright Central—the same class Eve Bruneau was in three years ago. “I really don’t believe you should hit the pocketbook to get solutions,” she says. “I really feel that it should have been dealt with not by suing but by dealing with the kids as adolescents. Adolescence is a difficult time for a boy or girl.”
But the Bruneaus argue that this is precisely the point—and precisely why they are pressing the case: so that even in the stormy years of puberty, kids aren’t allowed to lose sight of right and wrong. For them, as with the other parents who sued, going to court was a last resort. “It surprises me how many people will say that ‘boys go through this stage,’ but I know a lot of guys who are 40, and they still act like they’re 12,” says Pat Schofield. “They pick up this attitude and they take it with them.”
JACK BOULWARE in San Francisco, ANTHONY DUIGNAN-CABRERA in Stamford, N.Y., JOSEPH HARMES in Bryan and CAROL SIMONS in Washington