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Sex and law enmeshed

The international ridicule that greeted the suspension of a six-year-old boy for sex harassment after he kissed a classmate masks a serious legal problem facing American schools.

Johnathan Gray Prevette was pulled out of class and banned from an ice cream party at Lexington, North Carolina for what school officials called sex harassment. They belatedly downgraded the charge to "unwarranted and unwelcome touching".

The threat of costly law suits is blamed for driving schools to adopt draconian measures to protect pupils from sexual harassment by their peers.

A California jury this month awarded half a million dollars in damages (Pounds 327,000) to a 14-year-old girl who claimed to have been terrorised by a boy who taunted and threatened to beat and kill her. Her family sued the Antioch Unified School District and claimed school officials had ignored her complaint.

Lawyers in the US education department have warned schools they may be held liable for maintaining a "hostile environment" if they learn or should have learned of sex harassment and fail to take measures to stop it.

The most serious documented cases of sex harassment in schools have involved teenage girls as victims. But the legal picture is unclear, as some Federal courts have ruled schools can only be held liable for the conduct of their employees.

In Georgia an appeals court ruled that a 10-year-old girl could pursue her case against school authorities after she was 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.

Last year a Texas court ruled that two girls who claimed to have been harassed by a boy on the school bus had no claim against the district. An appeal is being held and the issue may go to the Supreme Court.

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