Advice Goddess Blog
« Previous | Home | Next »

I Coulda Been A Childhood Felon
It was third grade. Jeannie Willaker and I were supposed to sweep our classroom as punishment for talking. She wouldn't do her part, so little pre-libertarian me, I thwacked her over the head with the dustpan. I got talking-to from the principal, and that was that. No assault charges were filed. I did no time in The Big House. And (phew!) I learned my lesson and managed to go straight as an adult.

I was reminded of my childhood foray into violent crime when I read a story by award-winning former New Times LA investigative reporter Susan Goldsmith, whom I grew up near in suburban Detroit. Susan writes in the Oregonian about the utter ridiculousness brought down on two boys in Minneville, Oregon for swatting girls' butts as they walked down the hall in school:

Two McMinnville middle-schoolers facing sex abuse charges for spanking girls in the hallway probably will not do jail time or be required to register as sex offenders, the Yamhill County district attorney said Monday as the case against the boys grew into a media sensation.

The comments from Bradley Berry outraged the parents of the two 13-year-olds, Ryan Cornelison and Cory Mashburn, who with their lawyers were deluged with calls from ABC, CNN, Fox, Court TV and radio stations across the country a day after a story about the prosecution appeared in The Sunday Oregonian.

Until now, Berry has declined to discuss specifics of the case or explain why it merits criminal charges. After spending most of Monday fielding complaints, however, he elaborated for the first time.

"From our perspective and the perspective of the victims, this was not just horseplay," Berry told The Oregonian. "People may disagree, and I understand that."

Based on his experience in similar cases, Berry said it's unlikely the boys, if convicted, would be sentenced for the maximum jail time for each of the counts. "That type of sentence has never been imposed in my county or in any county that I know of for these types of offenses," he said.

Berry said he, too, was inundated with calls and e-mails from readers who complained that charging the boys with 10 counts of sex abuse and harassment was an overreaction, as their parents maintain. Lawyers for the boys say each count could bring a year in confinement and mandatory registration as sex offenders.

...Lawrence (the lawyer for one of the boys) noted that Berry's office initially charged the boys with felony sex abuse before reducing the charges in May. The boys also spent five days in detention in February. Officials at McMinnville Public Schools and Patton Middle School imposed a five-day suspension on the seventh-graders.

Okay, talk to them about why this is wrong, maybe even suspend them for a few days -- after some stern adult figure gives them a talking-to and explains why it's wrong, and if they do it again. They're 13-year-olds boys. This sort of thing is what 13-year-old boys do, and why we have them in school and not running in loincloths in the wild. School is, in part, an opportunity to correct behavior like that, to explain that it's inappropriate. To charge them with felony sex abuse and try to send them to jail? Who does that serve? (Is the prosecutor up for reelection?)

Here's Susan's original story, from the Sunday Oregonian:

The two boys tore down the hall of Patton Middle School after lunch, swatting the bottoms of girls as they ran -- what some kids later said was a common form of greeting.

But bottom-slapping is against policy in McMinnville Public Schools. So a teacher's aide sent the gawky seventh-graders to the office, where the vice principal and a police officer stationed at the school soon interrogated them.

After hours of interviews with students the day of the February incident, the officer read the boys their Miranda rights and hauled them off in handcuffs to juvenile jail, where they spent the next five days.

Now, Cory Mashburn and Ryan Cornelison, both 13, face the prospect of 10 years in juvenile detention and a lifetime on the sex offender registry in a case that poses a fundamental question: When is horseplay a crime?

Bradley Berry, the McMinnville district attorney, said his office "aggressively" pursues sex crimes that involve children. "These cases are devastating to children," he said. "They are life-altering cases."

Last year, in a previously undisclosed prosecution, he charged two other Patton Middle School boys with felony sex abuse for repeatedly slapping the bottom of a female student. Both pleaded guilty to harassment, which is a misdemeanor. Berry declined to discuss his cases against Mashburn and Cornelison.

The boys and their parents say Berry has gone far beyond what is necessary, criminalizing actions that they acknowledge were inappropriate. School district officials said Friday they had addressed the incident by suspending the students for five days.

The outlines of the case have been known. But confidential police reports and juvenile court records shed new light on the context of the boys' actions. The records show that other students, boys and girls, were slapping one another's bottoms. Two of the girls identified as victims have recanted, saying they felt pressured and gave false statements to interrogators.

The documents also show that the boys face 10 misdemeanor charges -- five sex abuse counts, five harassment counts -- reduced from initial charges of felony sex abuse. The boys are scheduled to go on trial Aug. 20.

A leading expert called the case a "travesty of justice" that is part of a growing trend in which children as young as 8 are being labeled sexual predators in juvenile court, where documents and proceedings are often secret.

Here's another example, by Erin Cunningham, of the Herald-Mail:

HAGERSTOWN - A kindergarten student was accused earlier this month of sexually harassing a classmate at Lincolnshire Elementary School, an accusation that will remain on his record until he moves to middle school.

Washington County Public Schools spokeswoman Carol Mowen said the definition of sexual harassment used by the school system is, "unwelcome sexual advances, request for sexual favors and/or other inappropriate verbal, written or physical conduct of a sexual nature directed toward others."

Mowen said that definition comes from the Maryland State Department of Education.

According to a school document provided by the boy's father, the 5-year-old pinched a girl's buttocks on Dec. 8 in a hallway at the school south of Hagerstown.

Charles Vallance, the boy's father, said he was unable to explain to his son what he had done.

"He knows nothing about sex," Vallance said. "There's no way to explain what he's been written up for. He knows it as playing around. He doesn't know it as anything sexual at all."

The incident was described as "sexual harassment" on the school form.

...School administrators at a Texas school in November suspended a 4-year-old student for inappropriately touching a teacher's aide after the prekindergarten student hugged the woman.

...During the 2005-06 school year, 28 kindergarten students in Maryland were suspended for sex offenses, including sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual activity, according to state data. Fifteen of those suspensions were for sexual harassment.

How insane have we gone that we're punishing children for hugging?

Furthermore, I think the paranoia that everybody is a potential kiddie diddler is pretty sick and pretty crazy. When I spent a month in Rome a while back, visiting my friends Thomas and Roberta, we'd have dinner every night at Roberta's parents' apartment. Ro's sister or somebody would come in with their baby and the baby would be removed from their arms and passed around the room for grandpa and grandma and uncles, aunts, and cousins to each cootchie-coo it, or whatever it is they say in Italian. Perhaps it's an incorrect assumption on my part, but I'm guessing that's why children from Latin cultures seem better adjusted and aren't as fearful around people not in their immediate family as American children tend to be.

Posted by aalkon at July 25, 2007 9:19 AM


Looks like another prosecuter needs to be "nifonged"

Posted by: winston at July 25, 2007 7:42 AM

Is it really being a "kiddie Diddler" when you're the same age as the people you're trying to uh... diddle?

Personally I think the most appropriate punishment would have been to have the girls spank the boys back. Done and Done. The rest of this is just hysteria.

Posted by: Shinobi at July 25, 2007 7:54 AM

Is it really being a "kiddie Diddler" when you're the same age as the people you're trying to uh... diddle?

I changed the subject. See "Furthermore."

But, I don't think consensual sex acts between teens should be punished.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 25, 2007 7:58 AM

Hey Amy, I agree whole heartedly with you. We are becoming too "PC", some guys will never get it, but most of us learn what is and is not appropriate when dealing with the opposite sex. As a kid I did some similar things, but under no circumstances would I display such behavior now. A "good talking to" should be enough to curb this behavior and the boys will learn a valuable lesson, but any harsher punishment would be unproductive and unnecessary.

Posted by: Rod at July 25, 2007 8:17 AM

Counterproductive, even. As you note, you did similar things, as probably did a lot of kids, but how many of us are 40-year-old adults who go around randomly smacking coworkers on the butts? (Treacher aside!)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 25, 2007 8:56 AM

How freakin' sad. I remember when I was in grade school, the girls who didn't get swatted on the behind once or twice by a boy got upset about it! It meant the boys didn't like them!

Posted by: Flynne at July 25, 2007 9:55 AM

You might include links to the like of the Yamhill County district attorney, so that people can mail them with some level headed opinions as to how they're performing in their job.

Posted by: Don at July 25, 2007 10:08 AM

Oh my, I was abused when I was in school and didn't know it! A girl once swatted my butt as we passed each other in the hall.

Posted by: William at July 25, 2007 10:15 AM

This ridiculousness has its origin in several trends. First and foremost, most of the adult population in this country is patently uncomfortable and confused with sexuality. This is what happens when, on the one hand, we splash soft-core porn all over the society, and on the other, we shriek that it's all dirty. No wonder everyone's confused. We're just transmitting to our kids that we're not comfortable with ourselves and our sexuality.

Next, there is an increasing trend not to let school employees exercise judgment. They are required to handle everything "by the book", with no allowance for individual circumstances. This is in part because the politicians and bureaucrats that run school systems don't trust (sometimes rightly) their employees to exercise common sense. Another part is that every school administration has lawyers whispering in its ears constantly that we can't treat anyone differently than anyone else, no matter what, out of fear of being sued for discrimination. Instead of telling the lawyers that they have common sense and that they have the courage of good solid convictions, they go along with the program, like so many mindless sheep.

Many schools, in their tone and atmosphere, have become prisons. No wonder most kids try to slide by and can't wait to get out at the earliest opportunity.

Posted by: cpabroker at July 25, 2007 10:31 AM

Looks like another prosecuter needs to be "nifonged"

I think he needs to be spanked.

Posted by: mishu at July 25, 2007 10:32 AM

Per your request above:

Yamhill County District Attorney
535 Northeast 5th Street # 42,
Mc Minnville, OR 97128
(503) 472-9371

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 25, 2007 10:43 AM

"Looks like another prosecuter needs to be "nifonged"

"The defense has filed prosecutoral misconduct complaints." - via Radley Balko

As far as consensual teenage sex, not all consensual sex is uncoerced. But then we shouldn't be criminalizing low self esteem.

Posted by: smurfy at July 25, 2007 10:45 AM

I decided, when I became pregnant, that under no circumstances was my kid ever going to public school - we live in the Houston ISD, which has some pretty good magnet and vanguard-type programs. It's really not the crappy quality of the education I object to, although that's bad enough - it's this kind of crap - the zero tolerance, no water guns, no aspirin, no touching or hugging or talking or looking crossways at other kids, the social engineering aspects that have nothing to do with education (like cultural appreciation classes, environmental indoctrination, etc. etc.) On the other hand, public schools are still full of drugs and weapons, and teachers are frequently assaulted, and there are frequent and horrific tales of student-on-student violence, a lot of which goes unpunished (or not punished severely enough) because public schools can't kick out the bad seeds. I'm not a religious nut or even a particularly ideologically pure libertarian. I just think the American public school system is broken beyond repair. I have to support it with my taxes, but I'll live in a box before I subject my daughter to it.

She just finished her first year at the private school I hope she'll go to through high school - she'll be in kindergarten in the fall. We are not rich, but we've been saving for school since I was pregnant and we get a little help from the grandparents. Thank God she's an only child.

Posted by: holly watson at July 25, 2007 11:25 AM

Just like the "war on drugs" became in fashion, so is the "war on sexual predators." When politicians want to seem "tough on crime," those are the first two things they go for. They pretend there's no gray area (giving a 17 y.o. that had consensual oral sex with a 13 y.o. the same kind of punishment as you would a 45 year old child rapist), and it's easy because unless they go WAY into left field (as above), who wants to step up and defend a predator? It's politically expedient to lump them all in the same category, lock 'em up, and after they serve their time, force them to live under bridges. FSM forbid that the judicial system be seen as "soft on predators." It's become a political tool. True, there are some sick and monstrous people out there...but we shouldn't treat a non-violent possessor of a bag of weed the same as a multiple-murdering drug pusher, either.
It's intellectual laziness to have only either/or - black/white thinking.

Posted by: Jamie at July 25, 2007 11:37 AM

What cpabroker and Jamie said.

Posted by: justin case at July 25, 2007 12:21 PM

Cathy Seipp wrote a great piece on how her daughter was prohibited from using her asthma inhaler!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 25, 2007 12:54 PM

Just say...lapse into unconsciousness!

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 25, 2007 12:55 PM

I was on the receiving end of a lot of malicious bullying and harassment as a kid (had ulcers before I was 13). It sucked, but I think it did a great deal for my sense of empathy and compassion, and certainly toughened me up a bit. Got me interested in psychology as well, because I kept trying to figure out WHY they were being such shitheads.

Would have been nice if the school had stepped in and DID something about it...the physical bullying didn't stop until I finally hit back (5th grade) and the emotional bullying didn't stop until I realized how effective of a smart ass I could be (7th). But as much as I think they deserved some sort of consequence, I'd think a stern talking-to, suspension, or corporal punishment (while it was still legal) should be the worst they got...not prison.

Posted by: Jamie at July 25, 2007 1:13 PM

So the boys were interviewed by cops for 'gours' before being arrested, well unless their parents were present for the questioning those boys had their rights violated.

This shit pisses me off, wat really pisses me off though is the fact that it happens all the time and only to men.

There was a case out of Alabama, a 17 yr old got a blow job from a 15yr old, according to Alabama law she wasnt old enough to give consent so the 17 yr old will be in jail until his 24th birthday, and when he gets out he wont even be allowed to go home because his sister wont be 18 and as a registared sex offender he can not live in a house with anyone undr the age of 18.

There was a case in the UK 17yr old girl & a 15yr old guy have sex, the boy is arrested and charged.
The age of consent in the UK is 16, so technically the sex act was illegal - and yet the carge the boy who should have been the victim

Oklahoma 19yr old woman, 14 yr old boy have sex, she gets pregnant, He turns 18 state slaps him with 4yrs world of unpaid child support and penalties - threaten to open a statutory rape case against him should he fail to pay what he 'owes'

I'm just wondering how much longer it will be before simply being male is a crime in and of itself

Posted by: lujlp at July 25, 2007 1:18 PM

The Zero Tolerance policies have just gotten insane, and combined with the "aggressive" prosecution of child on child "sex crimes", it's getting too scary to let your kids be in public schools (and I've worked in them).

Ellie, the daughter of a close friend, a fey, imaginative little thing, was suspended for several days when she was in third grade. She and a friend were playing "wedding" with a tree as the groom. Her friend was marrying the tree, and Ellie marched up and slapped the tree, saying something along the lines of "How could you do this to me?" (I think she was watching soaps over the summer.) She was suspended for SEXUALLY HARASSING the TREE. I guess she was just lucky there wasn't a law protecting the tree from sexual abuse or she might have ended up in juvie.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 25, 2007 1:50 PM

Well, on the flip side of that coin, you have a multitude of underaged girls who have been kidnapped, or "gone missing", or been abducted from their own friggin' backyards, or on their way home from school, or just gone to the store for their mom, by adult men (and in some cases, older "boys") who've raped and killed them. And some of the perps still haven't been caught! There's injustice all over the damn place, lujlp! Calm down.

Posted by: Flynne at July 25, 2007 1:51 PM

I wanna hear more about Jeannie Willaker.

Posted by: Crid at July 25, 2007 1:55 PM

I see so becuase there are sick fucks who kidnap female children, apparently no male child has ever been abducted and no women ever commit such crimes, we need to jail young boys who are acting a little inappropriatly and label them child molesters for the rest of their lives.

I wonder how often what the little perverts do is influenced by stuff they see adults doing all the time?

You said you have kids, are any of thm boys?
How would you feel if your children were playing around had something like this blown out of proportion and had the rest of their lives limited in countless ways?

Would you care then?

Posted by: lujlp at July 25, 2007 2:08 PM

For all of our modernity and feminist mindset, there are still a lot of Victorian ideas and concepts floating around the collective psyche. One of which is the idea that men are the ones morally responsible for sex. Women are just doe-eyed innocents at the mercy of rapacious males.

But when this butts up against the "sex-in-the-city" ethos of many modern women the hypocricy and double standards involved can be especially damaging for males.

A societal double standard is one thing, a legal double standard is quite another.

Posted by: winston at July 25, 2007 4:38 PM

I still can't get over the one about the girl sexually harrassing the tree. This cannot be real...can it?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 25, 2007 4:45 PM

No no lujlp! That's not at all what I was saying, I was saying you need to not paint the picture so black and white, of course there are women out there who are just as evil!
(For the record, I have 2 daughters, 2 nieces and 3 nephews, one of whom is so totally fucked up that he's stolen from his parents, my parents, me, and my brothers. But that's neither here nor there.)
Please, stop acting like you're so put upon because you're a guy! We need to bag the "Politcally Correct" bullshit because it's NOT political and it's NOT correct.
We, as a society, need to stop letting things get so out of proportion to the actual nature of the incident. This Zero Tolerance bullshit is just that! The school board in my town suspended a 4th grade girl for 5 days because she brought a plastic knife to school in her lunch bag so she could cut up her melon pieces that her mom gave her! They tried to suspend another child for bringing a peanut butter sandwich after being told that one of her classmates could not have peanut butter! She told the teacher, "but he's not going to eat it, I am!" Where does it end?

Posted by: Flynne at July 25, 2007 5:34 PM

Amy - it's just dumb enough to be believable.

This will stop when all male children are placed on the sexual predator watch list at birth. After all, all men are potential rapists.

Posted by: brian at July 25, 2007 6:06 PM

It gets worse. In the process of looking something up for the 2nd Amendment thread, I went to look up the UCS. Here's their definition of Forcible Rape:

The carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will. Rapes by force and attempts or assaults to rape, regardless of the age of the victim, are included. Statutory offenses (no force used—victim under age of consent) are excluded.

Note what's conspicuously absent. There is no way for a man to be classified as having been forcibly raped. This is as bad, possibly worse, than the sexual harassment laws that explicitly stated that only women could be sexually harassed.

Double standard? Not to a feminist. It's sweet, sweet revenge, baby.

Posted by: brian at July 25, 2007 6:09 PM

>I still can't get over the one about the girl sexually harrassing the tree. This cannot be real...can it?

Swear to FSM. She showed me the paperwork. I probably still wouldn't have believed it if I didn't know the principal who suspended her. The one who told me there was something wrong with my 4th grade son 'cause he didn't let her hug him. Isn't that sexually harassing my son?

Luckily Ellie's teacher thought it was completely ridiculous as well, and gave her the bare minimum of makeup work to do. Her Mom made sure she basically had a fun three-day vacation. Personally I'd have gone to the school board, the press, etc., but my friend figured that would just make Ellie's next few years at that school miserable.

Posted by: Kimberly at July 25, 2007 7:03 PM

And then, we ask ourselves where the real mens are gone; they are castrated even before they reach puberty...

Posted by: Toubrouk at July 25, 2007 11:20 PM

Bradley Berry, the McMinnville district attorney, said his office "aggressively" pursues sex crimes that involve children. "These cases are devastating to children," he said. "They are life-altering cases."

Apparently, he misses the irony.

Posted by: Doobie at July 26, 2007 2:05 AM

"There is no way for a man to be classified as having been forcibly raped."


I'd be lying if I began a comment with "I'd take you seriously if...".

However, if you are genuinely enraged by certain injustices, at least show you've made a decent stab at understanding the nuances.

In some states, the word "rape" is used only to define a forced act of vaginal sexual intercourse, and an act of forced anal intercourse is termed "sodomy." In some states, the crime of sodomy also includes any oral sexual act. There are some states that now use gender-neutral terms to define acts of forced anal, vaginal or oral intercourse. Also, some states no longer use the terms "rape" and "sodomy," rather all sex crimes are described as sexual assaults or criminal sexual conduct of various degrees depending on the use and amount of force or coercion on the part of the assailant (National Center for Victims of Crime, GetHep Series: Sexual Assault Legislation).

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at July 26, 2007 7:00 AM

Thanks, Jody.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at July 26, 2007 7:47 AM

I had originally deleted this reply, but since Amy has decided to pile on...

Jody, in your attempt to prove your superiority over me, you have completely missed the point.

I was looking for nationwide statistics, which is why I went to the FBI UCR. Which, incidentally has "sex offenses" classified as a "Part II" offense (on account of it's not as serious as a "Part I" offense like Forcible Rape). No matter. The federal definitions, at least for the purposes of statistical reporting (again, not state - you're too clever by half) defines rape explicitly as a man on woman event.

Now, if you believe that it is not possible for a man to be raped by a woman, or you believe that rape necessarily involves a penis being used as a weapon, you wouldn't find anything odd about that definition. You'd also not care that there's no mention of gender in "sex offenses".

Which means that legally (statistically?), only a woman can be raped, and only a man can be a rapist. And most states punish rape more harshly than the vaguely worded "sexual assault".

Which means that a woman forcibly penetrating another woman, at least for statistical reporting purposes, is considered a less severe violation than when done by a man.

Are there any other felonies which are classified so explicitly by gender? None that I know of.

You may continue to view yourself as my better.

Posted by: brian at July 26, 2007 8:03 AM

This is your problem, right here:

"You may continue to view yourself as my better."

That is barmy.

I am not an American. But even I know better than to rely on "nationwide statistics" for making absolute claims about the law. Because someone is gonna bring up how it is in different states.

So -federal statistics have yet to even reflect the fact that: [my quote] "There are some states that now use gender-neutral terms to define acts of forced anal, vaginal or oral intercourse."

So, sure - there is catching up to do. 'Bout time, too.

But - you go ahead, Brian.

Keep trotting out that angry, condescending, man-hating slogan that you insert into the mouths of "your" twisted little feminists: "It's sweet, sweet revenge, baby".

It makes you look cracked - whether you are or not.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at July 26, 2007 9:21 AM

FYI brian the law only change when there becomes a need to change. So until the fed have a case that requires the laws to be changed (properly presented to them) they won't change, nor should they. Just changing a law because it might cause an issue is ridiculous.

I'm just vaguely curious, how precisely is a women supposed to rape a man. The definition of rape is forced sexual intercourse. The definition of intercourse (especially by Jesus freaks) is between a man and a women. That's the lead argument against gay marriage is the intercourse must be between a man and a women.

Sodomy with a foreign object I can see which is a bit different. Why is it different? Well you can't get pregnant with a foreign object (a man can't get pregnant anyway). The chance of contracting a VD from a foreign object is normally pretty slim. If the object is intentionally infected then that's not only Sexual assault but also assault with a deadly weapon, possibly an act of biological terrorism.

Posted by: vlad at July 26, 2007 11:39 AM

Well vlad I would suppose that a woman could rape a man by forcing sex upon him, if your going to claim that it isnt rape becuse he gets aroused that would allow male rapists to do the same.

If you want to see a man getting raped depicted in film watch "Thursday" with Thomas Jane & Paulina Porizkova

Posted by: lujlp at July 26, 2007 12:39 PM

Celibacy may become the favored recourse for Americans in their search to comply with an ever increase body of law. By touching no one and talking only when necessary, one greatly diminishes exposure to liability.

We here in the USA cannot really live like normal people abroad. Every touch, every word, every friend chose must be weighed into the cultural risk profile this country is developing.

I've never been in trouble in my life and have no intention to ever be in trouble. Celibacy and isolation has helped me quite a bit for decades in maintaining that position.

Given where things are headed, I highly recommend the approach. Just concentrate on work and school. Nothing else.

Posted by: Celibate at July 31, 2007 5:27 PM

Leave a comment