BROCKTON, Mass. – A 6-year-old boy is getting a lesson on the meaning of sexual harassment long before he'll be able to spell it.
The first-grader was suspended for three days for sexual harassment after he put two fingers inside a classmate's waistband, school officials told his mother, Berthena Dorinvil. The boy told her he only touched the girl's shirt after the girl touched him.
Experts say only in rare, troubling cases can children that young truly sexually harass one another.
"The connotation is you're getting some kind of sexual gratification, or wanting sexual gratification, or are putting pressure on for some kind of sexual gratification, when a 6-year-old doesn't have that capacity," said E. Christopher Murray, a civil rights attorney who has handled school discipline cases.
Dr. Elizabeth Berger, a Philadelphia-area child psychiatrist, said this case seems to be an overzealous attempt to ensure students feel safe in school after years in which society was not attentive enough.
The boy's mother called the Jan. 30 suspension from Downey Elementary School outrageous. She said she can't even explain to her son what he did wrong because he's too young to understand.
"He doesn't know those things," she told The Enterprise of Brockton. "He's only 6 years old."
Brockton school officials have not commented beyond a statement from Superintendent Basan Nembirkow that said sexual harassment charges are always investigated and officials are trained to deal with them.
The Brockton School Committee defines sexual harassment among students, in part, as "uninvited physical contact such as touching, hugging, patting or pinching."
First-graders who repeatedly touch classmates need to be disciplined and taught what's appropriate, said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. But don't call the apparent discipline problem "sexual harassment" because first-graders just don't get it, she said.
There have been similar cases. In 1996, a New York second-grader was suspended for kissing a girl and ripping a button off her skirt — an idea the boy said he got from his favorite book "Corduroy," about a bear with a missing button. Earlier that year, a Lexington, N.C., 6-year-old was separated from his class after kissing a classmate on the cheek.