"The `B' word is just another name for a girl or a lady or a woman. It's gotten real bad." Rick Rodriguez, an AmeriCorps Athletes in Service volunteer at Riverside High School. "If parents have a child over 12, ask the child if he or she has ever heard a girl called a `slut' in school". Lynn O'Connor, Ph.D, a family counselor from Orchard Park. "He was terrorizing her on a daily basis and saw fear in her face. That's what he enjoyed." The mother of a 14-year-old Sanfrancisco girl who recently was awarded $500,000 ub a sexual harassment case. The girl in San Francisco was unusual
not because she had been sexually harassed, but because she was able to do something about it.
Three years after the release of "Hostile Hallways" -- a groundbreaking study by the American Association of University Women that revealed that more than 81 percent of students have been harassed -- the problem of sexual harassment in the schools continues, unabated.
The enduring problem may be the fault of adults as much as the young harassers.
After the study came out, many schools across the country added sexual harassment policies to their student handbooks, but all too often did nothing to enforce them. In some cases, they even blatantly ignored those policies when students tried to file complaints.
And parents, typically, are unaware of the situation -- or don't recognize its severity.
"Parents don't realize it's much more intense, vicious, bold and humiliating now than even a
few years ago," O'Connor says. Censoring her terminology, she says, "Boys will say things like, 'Do you want to get laid,' or 'Have you been laid?,' and they almost act like this is a legitimate question!
"How is this stuff getting past the grown-ups in charge?" O'Connor says, and she means parents, teachers, counselors and everyone else who comes in contact with adolescents.
"Is it really OK with us that a girl will probably be called a 'whore' before she's 14?"
Part of the reason this does get past adults is that many students, girls and boys, won't report that it is happening. In the AAUW study, 23 percent of the students said they didn't tell anyone about being harassed. Another 63 percent told a friend, while only 7 percent told a teacher.
Some girls believe that going public with the insults will compound the damage. They know that they, and not the boy, will become the object of gossip. For others, having to repeat to a middle-aged administrator the horrible things that were said only makes the experience more humiliating.
And some worry about retaliation.
Several years ago, Christy Serio, 16, a senior at Riverside High School, reported a boy for punching her so hard it left bruises. He was suspended, but when he came back, she says, "He said, 'I'm not allowed to touch you in school, but just wait till you're walking home.' "
Many school districts, including those in Western New York, have found implementing their sexual harassment policies to be a bumpy process.
In 1995, a group of parents with children in Amherst Middle School found themselves asking the school board to review the policy. They said it was vague on discipline, didn't educate the students and provided no training for the teachers.
They based their complaints on experience. When a group of boys harassed a group of girls in the school, only one boy was suspended -- for half a day -- while the girls had their classes changed to avoid the harassers. The parents repeated what many victims have learned -- that administrators often regard the harassment as "typical" boy behavior.
In California, the State Legislature passed a bill this year that gives students who are sexually harassed the same rights as victims in criminal courts, and in August the Assembly discussed in committee mandating the expulsion of students found guilty of sexual assault.
That was the good news. But, in a column for the Los Angeles Times, an outraged Robin Abcarian writes that four people who were in that meeting told her "that something very much like the following was uttered by an assemblyman:
"You mean to tell me if I am a 13-year-old boy and my hormones are raging and a 12-year-old girl walks by and I want to cop a feel and I want to grab a breast, is that really so bad?"
Perhaps the assemblyman isn't aware that such aggressive behavior can be a precursor to future violence toward women. Diana Follingstad, a psychologist from the University of South Carolina, who has researched date violence, tells women, "If your 'friend' starts ridiculing you, makes accusations or calls you names, watch out!" And the roots of this behavior, she says, start in childhood.
People interested in stopping that behavior agree; and they say it is reinforced by the entertainment media, peers and even adults.
Too often, the policy seems to be to either not react at all or to overreact.
In the new book "Bullies & Victims," authors Suellen Fried and Paula Fried offer more practical suggestions.
They say adults need to teach young people that name calling and gossip can be damaging, and that it can escalate to violence, by a bully or by a frustrated victim. Adults also need to help victims of verbal abuse understand that they don't deserve it.
"Girls have been trained to accept this kind of thing," O'Connor says. "They aren't registering this as being as abhorrent as we think it is. For them it's normal -- they just wonder what's wrong with them."
Rick Rodriguez, who is a graduate student at the University at Buffalo when he's not working with AmeriCorps, says, "I think the biggest asset a kid can have is developing self-esteem. The women as well as the men need to know they are above a lot of the things they're seeing and hearing."
Then everyone in a school should know what the sexual harassment policy means. Most policies are similar, defining harassment as "unwanted and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature," and apply to words, graffiti, gestures and touching.
"I think, if they would give kids a label for it, it would make a difference," O'Connor says. "Then kids who don't have any other response could at least say, 'Stop harassing me.' "
And, she says, "Teachers need to reinforce that all children are protected, and they should teach kids (by example) that this is not going to be tolerated.
"Rest assured: It's happening in your school."