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Girls Turn Tide On Harassment

Two high school girls — both members of the Class of 2000 — never dreamt their actions would make sexual harassment in the classroom an issue people could no longer ignore.

The two girls, Eve Bruneau of New York State, and Tianna Ugarte of Northern California both sued their schools for sexual harassment, claiming the schools did nothing to stop their fellow students from calling them vulgar names, and making lewd gestures.

"The boys in my class were calling me and the other girls whores, lesbians, and other vulgar names," Bruneau said. Ugarte had a similar experience, and noted "I expected to be protected at school — and I wasn't."

But while Ugarte won her case, and was awarded half a million dollars in damages, Bruneau's case had another result. While the jury believed Bruneau, they did not find the school at fault. Still, both court cases sent a message that teasing and name-calling was no laughing matter.

That message has reached La Salle Senior High School, in Niagara Falls, New York, where a sexual harassment trainer has been hired to teach the students the difference between acceptable flirtation, and harassment. The instructor is there for the administration as well, as protection against future lawsuits.

The trainer, MaryJo McGrath, tells her classes that the difference between flirtation and harassment is in the consistency of the behavior.

"If you are a jerk once, you are not a sexual harasser, becaused it's happening just once. You've got some room to make mistakes. But if every time somebody walks down the hall, you whack them on the backside, you're getting into hot water because it's persistent," McGrath said.

La Salle administrator Richard Cardino is calling an early victory, saying that students have accepted that their conduct in school must be held to higher standards than what the students see on television and on the street.

Whether the victory will hold, however, remains unclear. For now, at least, two members of the Class of 2000 can say they left their mark on their school, and future classes to come.

Reported by Paula Zahn