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Paranoid High

from the magazine

Paranoid High

Autumn 1999
Education
Economy, finance, and budgets
Public safety
New York
The Social Order

After 55-year-old Richard Plass, an assistant principal and biology teacher at prestigious Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, pled guilty to molesting one of his 15-year-old students, school administrators deluged students with outside counselors and sexual-harassment lecturers. Recently, the administrators have sponsored special theatrical skits for freshmen, encouraging them to speak out about inappropriate touching.


According to some students and teachers, though, the administration's aggressive response has created an atmosphere of paranoia at the school. Kathleen Sarnes, a 16-year-old junior, complained to the New York Times, "I went in a classroom to give my homeroom teacher a hug and he backed off. He picked up like this 600-page booklet that the administration gave teachers on sexual harassment." One teacher worried that the administration was encouraging students to think that "any kind of touching can be interpreted as sexual." Others threatened to start videotaping their classes.


Meanwhile, Plass, the man who actually did the molesting—he had shown the student pornography and exposed himself to her—got off in court with three years' probation and received early (paid) retirement from the school system, the kind of punishment most would consider a reward.


What transpired at Stuyvesant is no surprise: it bubbles up from our culture's postmodern brew of moral relativism and the oversexualization of everyday life. In our current confusion, it becomes hard to grasp the difference between a criminal act, like exposing oneself in front of a student (after all, no one should judge another's sexual predilections) and a friendly pat on the shoulder. The creepy result: innocent teachers feel like criminals while the real criminal goes mostly unpunished.


A better idea would have been to fire Plass and cut off his pension, while calling off the counselors and lecturers.

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