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Confusion reigns over sex abuse by pupils

The US is soon to revisit the thorny issue of how sex harassment should be defined and handled by schools. The rights and wrongs of sex harassment remain a divisive, potentially explosive subject, and nowhere more so than in schools where children as young as six or seven have claimed to be victims, experts say.

Women's rights groups are pushing the US department of education to produce new guidelines for schools, parents and teachers that they complain have been nearly two years in the making.

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, will be asked to review the case of two sisters, who claim that they were repeatedly tormented by a boy on their school bus who grabbed their breasts and genitals. Their mother is suing a Texas middle school on the grounds that nothing was done to check the boy's misbehaviour.

The cause of sex harassment in schools took off with the first and only survey of its incidence in elementary schools conducted in Minnesota, which is traditionally regarded as a forward-looking and socially liberal state. Its results were echoed by a national poll of high schools conducted by the American Association of University Women.

In Minnesota 651 schools, mostly elementary, reported 2,206 incidents classed as sexual harassment, some relatively minor but others displaying what officials called a shocking level of student-to-student abuse.

The survey reported a first grade boy - aged six to seven who followed a girl and slapped her when she refused to kiss him; a third grade boy who grabbed a girl's crotch on a school bus; and an older boy who told a girl he would rape and kill her.

Many experts are worried by the impact of sexual abuse on teenage girls, who are usually the target and regarded as uniquely susceptible to low self-esteem.

In November 1994 the education department embarked on a consultation process on new guidelines for schools. But at a recent "lively" meeting with representatives of groups like the National Women's Law Centre, officials were asked why they were taking so long, sources said.

Republican conservatives have only just backed away from their threat to abolishthe education department, on the grounds that the Federal Government has its nose in too many local education issues and promulgates permissive views on abortion, contraception and gay rights. The Clinton administration may be rightly wary of laying down the law on sexual harassment for children in an election year, observers said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will have the option of reviewing at least one school harassment case and, in the process, the chance to clean up confusion over how to interpret the famous Title IX of the education amendments of 1972.

Title IX bars sex discrimination in schools which receive Federal money, and was originally used to force schools into giving girls equal access to sports programmes. The new issue is whether schools can be held liable for harassment conducted not by teachers, but by pupils, that sexually discriminates.

Though schools have reportedly settled parental lawsuits brought under Title IX for large sums, the legal picture is unclear. In the Texas case, a Federal appeals court ruled a school district could not be held liable.

However, in Georgia, in a separate case, another appeals court held that it could. That case involved a 10-year-old girl allegedly driven close to suicide by an 11-year-old boy who kept touching her and telling her he wanted to have sex with her.

The court found that when a school knowingly fails to correct a "sexually hostile environment", a pupil has been denied his or her right to an education. It gave the girl's parents the go-ahead to proceed with a million-dollar lawsuit. However, the case is also expected to end in the Supreme Court's lap.

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