Dear Dr. Wes & John: Let's say that there was a staff member in your school that you didn't really feel comfortable around, and you already spoke to the principal of the school and the staff member still touched you (on the arm) again afterward. What would you do?
Dr. Wes: Given the topic, I edited this letter to reduce identifying information, but readers should know that the writer is a very young teen. It's hard to say exactly what's going on here. It could be that you are very sensitive to such things or perhaps you are picking up on something more sinister. In either case, you have a right not to be touched in any manner, anywhere, by anyone unless you are so out of control that you have to be restrained for your own protection or the protection of others. That's obviously not the case, so if you're asking not to be touched, then that request should be granted without any argument. PERIOD.
I wish this were an isolated incident, but it's not. I've seen many examples of boundary violations in schools here and all over the country. Some have become public, and many have not. Some are minor, and some are shocking. The same is true in churches, youth organizations and any situation in which adults and children interact. As I've said many times, the research about sexual abuse is clear: We need to be more concerned about family and acquaintances than strangers or Internet predators. Thus it behooves any school official to assure that children are not being touched in any manner they do not wish - even if that touch is completely innocent and nonsexual, as appears to be true here. For example, I personally thought it was nice to get an appropriate hug now and then from a teacher or pastor. But some teens might not. If any form of touch is uncomfortable, one should be able to say "nope, none for me" and be done with it.
I find that principals in our area tend to be peacemakers and mediators. They like to sit down with folks and work out friendly arrangements and help everyone get along. I don't know whether this is a particular school policy, a trend in hiring or a fluke. It's not a bad thing. However, at times one has to be a bit more forceful and just say, "Knock it off or else." I suspect your principal will do that if you and your folks explain that the problem has not ended. Explain that you are not accusing anyone of anything, unless you have good reason to believe that this touch is leading somewhere bad. You just want there to be no further touching.
If the principal doesn't deal with the issue - and I think she/he will - then visit with the superintendent of your school district. I can't imagine it will take more than that, but if it does, every district has a school board. You could visit with the president if needed.
Before I close, let me be clear to all readers. NEVER accuse people of things unless you have reasonable evidence and NEVER HESITATE to report things for which you do. People who cry wolf do horrible damage to the real victims of mistreatment because they undermine everyone's credibility. Those who do not disclose real mistreatment leave others open to the same. Being honest and forthright go hand in hand in these situations. If you have doubts about something that may be happening to you, seek consultation from a professional who is not involved with the church, school or organization.
John: It's important to remember here that your principal has no proof of who is right. On the one hand, it would be foolish to dismiss your claims, as the janitor could be repeating this pattern with other students. On the other hand, an alarming number of sexual harassment claims turn out to be false, and even if nothing comes of it, mere allegations of harassment are enough to do serious damage to another's reputation. As Dr. Wes said, there probably will be an exchange of words between the principal and janitor, but don't pursue more.
Keep your messages to your janitor clear and unwavering. Often, cases of sexual harassment involve misunderstanding in which one party gives mixed messages about what is appropriate and what's not. So make sure your words and tone speak the same message: "Please don't." If the problem persists, you can speak to your principal again, or move up the management ladder. If you're really uncomfortable, you can try avoiding the janitor or sticking to areas with other people or surveillance cameras.
Next week: More boundary issues. A parent asks us to tell her late teen that underage dating is dangerous. We do.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.