November 30, 1992 12:00 PM

EVERY NIGHT AS SINGLE MOTHER SUE Mutziger tucks her daughter, Cheltzie Hentz, into bed, they take a few moments to talk about the 7-year-old’s day—her projects, her dreams, her plans. The sweet nothings of a happy childhood mostly. Which is why Mutziger, 42, shudders when she remembers the night last March that Cheltzie started talking about the boys on the school bus.

“She said, ‘Mom, do you know what the boys said to me today?’ ” Mutziger recalls. The little girl then went over to her easel and wrote the words down because, she told her mother, “I know we don’t talk like that.” The four-letter words Cheltzie scribbled on her easel, and other indecent remarks the boys had made, went far beyond Mutziger’s notion of teasing. “I was shocked,” she says. “I had to do something.”

The firs I thing Mutziger did was complain to the school district bus authorities in Eden Prairie, Minn. (pop. 40,000). The two offending boys, with the blessings of their parents, were sterly lectured by school officials. Within 10 days one of the boys was removed from the bus for the rest of the year and provided with alternate transportation to school at the district’s expense.

Everyone hoped the problem was solved, but Cheltzie continued to complain to her mother. Three months later another boy was removed from the school bus and provided with alternate transportation. Still not satisfied with the district’s response, Mutziger has filed a sexual harassment complaint on Cheltzie’s behalf with the Minnesota Human Rights Department and the U.S. Office of Civil Rights. The civil rights office will issue its findings in January, and the slate of Minnesota will publish its results this spring. If found guilty of not protecting her from harassment, the school district stands to lose its federal funding. Meanwhile, shy little Cheltzie, who likes to play with her Barbie dolls in her bedroom, is believed to be the youngest person ever involved in a sexual harassment dispute.

Emotions are running high in this Minneapolis suburb about Mutziger and her complaint. “I believe the majority of the people here feel she’s completely out of line suing the district,” says Leah Worcester, PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) copresident at Cedar Ridge Elementary School. “No one trusts her motives.” Yet Mutziger has her share of partisans—like Sue Sattell, a sex-equity specialist with the Minnesota Department of Education. “Serial killers say they started harassing at age 10,” says Sattell. “They got away with it and went on from there. There’s a very real need to deal with these kids seriously.”

Superintendent of the Eden Prairie School District Gerald McCoy is furious that a federal case has been made out of Cheltzie’s difficulties on the bus. “It happened, and we did something about it,” he says. “We don’t think it was sexual harassment; we think it was bad language.”

Mutziger, who was raised on a farm outside Ethan, S.Dak., by “wonderful parents who sheltered and protected us,” says she wants her daughter to grow up with the same sense of safely. She has been a single mom ever since Cheltzie was a toddler and has been supporting herself by doing various sorts of part-time work from her two-bedroom apartment in this middle-class suburb. When Cheltzie entered first grade, Mutziger returned to school to get her master’s in counseling and psychotherapy at the Alfred Adler Institute in Minneapolis. It was her graduate studies, says Mutziger, that sensitized her to Cheltzie’s plight. “I’d be sitting here studying,” she says, “and it was all right there in front of me. These years are crucial in Cheltzie’s life. She was getting the idea that this is how boys treat girls—say dirty things, make fun of them.” This is why she will not give up her battle on Cheltzie’s behalf. She is pushing for either adult chaperons or video cameras on school buses, as well as a program to combat sexual harassment starling in kindergarten and going through grade 12.

Superintendent McCoy, the father of three grown daughters and an educator for 32 years, says he has devoted his life to providing equal opportunity for boys and girls. He believes that placing cameras on school buses is “too much like [George Orwell’s] 1984.” Furthermore, McCoy says he has been training staff and students about peer pressure and sexual harassment for the last six years. “Compared with other schools,” he says, “we’re very far ahead on this issue.”

As the controversy swirls around her, Cheltzie goes on with her normal life of play dates and birthday parties. Sometimes her mother drives her to school; sometimes she takes the bus. “I sit on the outside, not by the window, with my friend. We talk,” she says. Meanwhile her mother keeps up the fight. “She’s a wonderful little girl—the joy of my life,” says Sue Mutziger. “And I want her to grow up strong and happy.”

ELIZABETH GLEICK

MARGARET NELSON in Eden Prairie

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